How Long is a Paragraph?
Thanks to a regular contributor to this blog–Nancy R. Hatch who blogs at Spirit Lights the Way and serves both as a Guest Blogger, and frequent commenter–I was made aware of a wonderful list on Ask.com, called “Top Five Phony Rules of Writing“, by Richard Nordquist.
Norquist’s Rule Three has to do with how many sentences a paragraph must have. Apparently there are a lot of rules about paragraph length, ranging from two (this is what I’ve believed for lo these many years), but I’ve now seen quotes from three to seven sentences.
One reason for this is the confusion between essay, or non-fiction, and fiction writing. I found an unattributed explanation on Answers.Yahoo.com, partially quoted here:
“A paragraph starts with a main point which is followed by supporting details. The non-fiction paragraph usually begins with the general and moves towards the more specific to advance an argument or point of view. Each paragraph builds on what came before and lays the ground for what comes next. Paragraphs generally range three to seven sentences all joined in a single paragraphed statement. In prose fiction and literary writing paragraph structure is more abstract, depending on the writer’s technique and the action of the narrative. Facts and parts of the narrative are ordered to achieve poignancy and support rhetorical devices. A paragraph in prose fiction can start with a single detail and enlarge the picture with successive details, for example; but it is just as common for the point of a prose paragraph to occur in the middle or the end. A paragraph can be as short as one word or run the length of multiple pages, and may consist of one or many sentences. When dialogue is being quoted in fiction, a new paragraph is used each time the person being quoted changes.”
Whew! Good stuff.
Frankly, I like what Nordquist has to say about it. In essence, a paragraph, a sentence, even, should be as long as it needs to be.
If you are interested in guidelines for the length of other writing projects, try “How Long Should You Write? Document Lengths“ on this blog.