What’s the ideal paragraph length? Is there an ideal paragraph length? Are there hard-and-fast rules that govern how long our paragraphs — “grafs,” if you’re cool and/or “in the biz” — or can you just create paragraphs of different lengths willy-nilly, like some damn hippie?
The latest episode of Grammar Girl’s podcast opened with this horrifying story:
A while ago, I saw a comment on Facebook about professors who are teaching college students to make all their paragraphs the same length. The woman wrote, “There are professors at my school who deduct points, sometimes even letter grades, if paragraphs aren’t the same exact length throughout a paper. Because writing should be ‘balanced’ and it can only achieve ‘balance’ if all paragraphs are equal in length.”
Since this is one of the most preposterous things I’ve ever heard, I thought I must have misunderstood, but I asked for clarification and learned that the “uniform paragraph length rule” is so pervasive at this university that one professor uses a ruler to measure physical paragraph length in an introductory English class.
Let me say it right now, upfront.
There is no one ideal paragraph length.
According to Grammar Girl, both the Yahoo! Style Guide and the college handbook A Writer’s Reference (affiliate links) say the ideal paragraph length is between 100 and 200 words. However, “good writers treat this as a suggestion and not a hard and fast rule.”
The problem is, we live in an age of skimmers, not readers. If you’re a content marketer, blogger, or essayist, you don’t have the luxury of getting people to dig into a block of text between 100 and 200 words. Large blocks of text without any white space make our eyes glaze over — at least mine do — and we just zone out and get the early morning stares. A big block of text just looks boring as shit. People ignore long paragraphs because they’re dense, so we should avoid cramming in that many words, of which this is the 100th.
Seriously, that graf is exactly 100 words long.
That one was eight.
And that one was four.
Do you see the difference? Do you feel how much easier it felt to read the short one-sentence paragraphs instead of that 100-word monstrosity?
Like it or not, people don’t read, they skim. They prefer short paragraphs, not long chunks of text. Sure, you can slip them in once in a while, but people tend not to read them. Did you even notice I said “shit” in that 100-word paragraph up there?
Unfortunately, writing teachers tend to give young writers bad advice, which is why there are “rules” about paragraph length.
Just remember, there’s the right way to write, and the school way. And the two are frequently different.
Paragraphs Aren’t a Part of Your System, Man!
Paragraphs can — and should — be varying lengths. If you want to write 200-word paragraphs, go ahead. If you think you can manage several 200-word paragraphs in a row, be my guest. But I’ll bet if you were to do a heat map or readability study of your work, you’d find that very few people are slogging their way through that bog.
There are already several “rules of English” that we can safely ignore. Either they’re obsolete, the language has changed, or they never should have been a rule in the first place.
- You can put a preposition at the end of a sentence. That should have never been a rule in the first place.
- You can split infinitives. That also should not have been a rule.
- You can start sentences with And, But, and Or. This rule has changed through “common usage.”
- You can start a sentence with “Hopefully.” It’s called a floating sentence adverb, and we’ve always been allowed to start sentences with those.
- Sentences, and even entire paragraphs, can be one word long.
I’ll admit, I’m not a big fan of some of the changes that are happening to the English language. Like the fact that “literally” now means figuratively. (Seriously, go to Google and enter “define literally!” That irritates me to no end!)
Teaching students that a paragraph must be of a certain length is also terrible teaching. Good writing will have paragraphs of varying length, from a couple hundred words (Yeesh!) to just one word. To teach otherwise is a disservice to your students because many of them will go through life thinking it’s a requirement when at best, it’s a guideline.
And before you tell me, “You have to learn the rules before you break them,” I would say 1) there’s not a real rule about paragraph length, and 2) you can teach people that paragraph lengths vary without blowing their minds.
They can make the leap from not knowing how long a graf is to knowing that it can be different. You don’t have to spend an entire semester teaching them this one rule, only to tell them, “Just kidding!” at some undetermined point in the future.
Bottom line: there’s no ideal paragraph length, and you can make them any size you want.
Photo credit: Qimono (Pixabay, Creative Commons 0)