As a writer, you (hopefully) use paragraphs a lot. They’re fantastic tools for improving the readability of our work.
But what is a paragraph when you really get down to it? And how can you write the most effective paragraphs?
Let’s find out!
Paragraphs: the low down
So you’ve got a jumble of notes (or perhaps a blank page), and it’s time to get your next draft organised into effective paragraphs.
How to start?
What is a paragraph?
The first thing to consider is what a paragraph is: a collection of sentences grouped to form a persuasive argument or explanation of a single idea.
The purpose of a paragraph is to fully contain and develop that one idea. And that means that your paragraph should be as long or as short as it needs to be to discuss this idea.
N.B. If you’re writing about a large complex idea, you can also have multiple successive paragraphs about this broader topic, connected using transitions.
Each paragraph should start on a new line, separated by a paragraph break to create visual space between your ideas. (Whether you indent the start of each new paragraph depends on the formatting and style guides you’re following for your document.)
Types of paragraphs
There are four primary types of paragraphs (expository, descriptive, persuasive, narrative), which fulfil different roles across distinct types of writing, from scene-setting to creating complex evidence-based arguments.
Knowing the difference is important for writing meaningful and effective paragraphs!
Let’s have a quick look at their content and purposes:
- Expository paragraphs convey information, explain your topic and confirm your credibility by gaining the reader’s trust. They establish sources and present facts and are common in academic and journalistic writing.
- Descriptive paragraphs offer detail, appeal to the reader’s senses and imagination through figurative language. They don’t always follow grammatical norms, and often feature in fiction and creative writing.
- Persuasive paragraphs aim to convince readers of an opinion or point of view, through claims and evidence that establish the credibility of the argument. They are common in academic and journalistic writing.
- Narrative paragraphs tell a story or set a scene and provide context and entertain the reader. They often feature a clear action sequence of beginning-middle-end and can be found in creative writing.
The kind of document you’re writing (academic paper, blog post, business report, novel) will have a big effect on the type of paragraphs you write. Equally importantly, it will have an impact on what they include …
What should a paragraph include?
There’s no simple answer to this – it all depends on what kind of thing you’re writing!
For example, academic writing contains a lot of expository and persuasive paragraphs. These tend to follow a common structure designed to guide your reader through your argument. For example:
- Start with a “topic sentence”
- Give 1-2 sentences of supporting evidence for (or against) your argument
- Next, write a sentence analysing this evidence with respect to your argument or topic sentence
- Finally, conclude by explaining the significance of this stance, or providing a transition to the next paragraph
(A quick definition: A “topic sentence” introduces the idea your paragraph will focus upon and makes summarising easy. It can occur anywhere but placing it at the start increases readability for your audience.)
This kind of structure can work well for academic essays and papers, business reports and other formal texts – if it isn’t followed too blindly. No-one likes to read cookie-cutter paragraphs!
For mediums that work well with shorter, less-structured paragraphs, like journalism and blogging, there really are no rules. Indeed, single-sentence paragraphs are perfectly acceptable, and even encouraged to increase readability (as you can see in this article!).
In such cases, clever use of sub-headings can lead to short sections that function as deconstructed paragraphs – the topic, evidence and conclusions are present, simply spread over a large number of short blocks rather than one longer academic chunk.
Here’s an example of how that would look:
Fully developed paragraphs are an essential part of some genres of writing (most notably, academic writing).
How do I develop my paragraphs, you ask?
Academic guides suggest that each paragraph should be unified, coherent, contain a topic sentence, and provide adequate development of your idea. That means that they should:
- Have a single focus – no tangents!
- Use logical and verbal bridges between sentences for understandable writing
- Be long enough to fully discuss and analyse your topic with evidence
(N.B. This is true for more formal expository or persuasive writing – perfect for college essays! But less so for creative endeavours where the rules are distinctly and wonderfully bendy …)
You can make sure your paragraphs are properly developed by:
- Using examples
- Citing data
- Examining testimony and quotations
- Defining terms that you use
- Providing analysis and evaluation
- Adding value with your own insights
- Describing your topic in more detail
An aside on sentence lengths, accessibility, and the science of reading
When considering the overall readability of your work, it’s not just about paragraphs. Sentence lengths are pretty important too.
In fact, sentence length is a primary factor in analysing the readability and reading age of written texts.
So when you’re writing, take your audience into consideration. If you’re aiming to be a trusted source, then your materials need to be accessible to you audience and their literacy levels.
Why might shorter sentences – and paragraphs – be better?
Recent research has shown that readers comprehend 90% of a document if sentence length is 14 words. (That sentence was 17 words). Above 20 words, sentences are considered increasingly difficult to comprehend. By 43 words, only 10% of readers comprehend what they’re reading.
Happily, that research is helping people across the globe. For example, the UK Government and Australian Government require their written resources to have 25 words per sentence maximum. They also prefer resources to be written in plain English and structured for maximum clarity.
In the realm of fiction, studies have shown that J.K. Rowling’s popular Harry Potter series has an average sentence length of just 11.97 words. That’s considered easy to read!
Reading, eye movements and attention spans
When we read, our eyes don’t focus on every word. Instead, they move in leaps called “saccades”. Research is now exploring the relationship between eye movement and cognitive processing when reading.
Breaking up text with smaller paragraphs helps to guide your eyes as they leap and scan.
We also know that people tend to scan written text, not read in detail. In fact, research has shown that most people only read 20-28% of text on a page. We spend a tiny amount of time reading each blog posts or news articles, and often in less-than-ideal reading locations (think busy offices, or on the metro!).
But accessibility isn’t just about literacy levels: it’s about medium too. Unless you know your work will be read in print, you audience will probably be online – and on their mobiles! And that means small screen sizes.
As with traditional multi-columned print media, small screens stretch short paragraphs to fill a far greater space. Suddenly all that white space you’d created for visual flow has disappeared again.
So if you want to keep your readers engaged with your content – paragraphs are a vital tool in your arsenal!
Want to know more about the ideal paragraph lengths for what you’re writing? Head over to our killer article for recommendations for every genre!
How to create effective paragraphs
How to create paragraphs is a skill we first learn around age 8 to 9 (school years 3-4 in the UK). By now you’ve probably forgotten all about why we use them, and all the benefits they can bring to you writing.
But that’s OK – it’s why we’re here 😊
What should your paragraphs be achieving for you?
I can’t quite believe I’m writing this sentence, but paragraphs are pretty cool. Honestly! They do so much for the readability of our writing.
Imagine opening your favourite blog or novel and being confronted with a giant wall of undivided text. Ugh … I think we’d all look away.
And now think about all the benefits paragraphs brings to your work:
- A paragraph break is essentially invisible punctuationthat provides a visual break for the reader
- They also offer important white space and visual markers to keep readers at the right place
- They help you to guide your readers with signposting and transitions
- Every paragraph should work to improve the flow of your writing
- They keep your content in easily digestible and readable chunks
Construct your paragraphs well, and your reader will be guided seamlessly through the logic of your argument or narrative!
Asking the right questions of your paragraphs
Writing and paragraphing effectively is all about context.
And to figure out that context you’ve got to be clear on five things – preferably before you start your first draft!
- What type of assignment are you writing?
- Is it formal or informal? A high school essay, an academic paper you’re submitting for peer review, or a technical report? Or a blog post, a news article, a novel, or a non-fiction book?
- What is the purpose of this piece of writing?
- I.e., is it educational? Informative? Entertainment? News? A report?
- Who is your audience? (And who are you to them?)
- In other words, who are you writing for and what relationship do you have with them? Your teacher? Academic colleagues in your field? Romance-novel readers? The general public?
- What will the format and final medium of your assignment be?
- Think about the final layout and spacing – is it a double-spaced essay on A4 paper, a small columned article, or perhaps a webpage that needs to be suitable for browsers and mobiles?
All of these elements will drastically alter the ideal length of your paragraphs, and even dictate how formal and strict the conventions in your field are. You’ll need to adjust your writing to create ideal readability for your conditions.
Measuring by ideas: when should you start a new paragraph?
The simple answer is “when you’ve concluded this idea” – or perhaps “when your current paragraph gets too long”.
But how do you identify those moments for getting out your metaphorical scissors?
One of the key skills when it comes to effective writing and paragraphing is knowing where to place your paragraph breaks. They hold so much power in creating flow, visual variety and white space!
First of all, don’t worry too much about your paragraphing after you’ve finished your first draft and have worked out your main ideas and points, and your argument or narrative. That’s the perfect time for identifying spots for breaks.
Paragraph break guidelines
Accepted wisdom (and convention) states that you should always start a new paragraph:
- When you start a new idea or make a new point
- Split up extended ideas into multiple paragraphs for each new point or piece of evidence you want to discuss
- To provide contrasting information and opinions
- Separating differences and opinions can help to highlight the contrasts in debates and arguments
- Start a new paragraph for counter-arguments and tangents, don’t go wandering off!
- When your readers need a pause within a long paragraph of complex material
- When you are ending your introduction, or starting your conclusion
- You may even need several paragraphs for your introduction or conclusion
- To provide a change in perspective
- A new person/character being described, or you’ve switched to a different viewpoint
- When you’re highlighting a change in time
- Within sections of dialogue, when someone new is speaking, or to divide a lengthy monologue
Tip: If your paragraphs are looking a little lengthy, your breaks may not be the only culprit! If you’re an incurably waffly writer (something I may admit to being at times), take a look at your sentence lengths too.
Not sure how to start all these new paragraphs you’re forming? We’ve got the perfect guide full of vocab and tips!
Paragraphing with an outline
Whether you’re writing your next research paper or starting a new novel, an effective way to manage your ideas and organise paragraphing is with an outline. Use this technique to order your muddled draft with your metaphorical scissors:
- Sit down and divide up your points into a numbered list on some rough paper
- Focus on dividing long, complex sections with lots of nuances into manageable chunks!
- And take note of the paragraph length recommendations for your genre of writing
- Rearrange them to create a logical order and flow for your narrative/argument that will make sense to your reader
- For example: Follow the steps in a sequence of events, highlight an order of importance, place cause before effect and problem before solution, and group pros and cons into separate paragraphs
- Work out some effective transitions to help link each paragraph
- Try our article on how to start a paragraph for lists of transitions and signposting!
- Write a quick summary for each paragraph to help you create effective “topic sentences”
- Just 2-3 words can do the trick, it doesn’t need to be long!
- Get writing your next draft!
And hey presto – with a plan on the page, there’s far less opportunity for endlessly waffling paragraphs or under-developed ideas! It’s the Goldilocks Zone of paragraphs – never too long, never too short, but just right for this specific idea.
Paragraphs: in summary
I’ve thrown a lot of information at you about how long your paragraphs should be, so here’s a recap of everything discussed in this article:
- The purpose of a paragraph is to develop just one idea, and should be as long or as short as it needs to be to discuss this idea
- They offer important visual aids for guiding your reader and improve readability
- Short paragraphs are great for increasing accessibility and readability
- Know your genre, audience, purpose, medium and format to decide what kind you need
- The four primary types serve different functions: expository, descriptive, persuasive, narrative
- A well-developed (academic) paragraph should be unified, coherent, contain a topic sentence, and provide adequate development
- You should always start a new paragraph for a new or contrasting point, idea, opinion or perspective
- Create an outline to work out where to add your paragraph breaks (after you’ve done your first draft!)
If you want to meet the needs of your audience and medium, make sure that you’re carefully considering the lengths of your paragraphs, and offering visual variety. Try to avoid following length or structure models too closely – be organic!
Thanks for reading, a good luck with your next writing endeavour!
Ready to get writing, but not sure how to start? Pop over to our excellent guides on how many sentences are in a paragraph, how to start a paragraph and how to start an essay for lots of advice and helpful vocab!