Writing rules were made for a reason. They’re also meant to be broken. You probably remember teachers bombarding you with grammar rules throughout school, only to hear them also marvel at the famous authors who broke those rules.
If you’re writing a blog, an article, or a novel, you may wonder what the rules are for the number of sentences in a paragraph. This article will discuss why the answer is debatable.
You can skip to any section of this article using the jump links below.
- How many sentences should a paragraph have?
- When to write shorter paragraphs
- When to write longer paragraphs
- Paragraphing suggestions
How many sentences should a paragraph have?
You may have been taught a general rule for the length of a paragraph in high school. Many teachers, and even college writing labs, claim that a good rule of thumb is that paragraphs should be three to five sentences, which is typically around 75 to 160 words.
But if you read almost any novel, blog, or magazine, you’re bound to see that rule broken. Your favorite author might write one-sentence paragraphs or paragraphs that take up half a page. In the real world, there’s no exact number of sentences that every paragraph needs.
That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t listen to your teachers. There’s a reason they want you to pay attention to the length of your paragraphs: They’re trying to teach you how to structure your ideas.
Your educators likely asked you to begin paragraphs with a topic sentence, end them with a concluding sentence, and include a few sentences in between supporting your idea. Teaching paragraph structure in this way helps you organize your ideas, but not every writer follows the formula and not every genre needs it.
Think about the last time you read a book. Did you ever stop to count a group of sentences in a paragraph? Probably not, because the exact number of sentences doesn’t matter. Some paragraphs are long and some paragraphs are short. What’s important is readability. A good paragraph is focused on one idea or main point and gets its message across clearly.
When to write shorter paragraphs
Shorter paragraphs are usually around two or three sentences. Bloggers, copywriters, journalists, and other commercial writers use shorter paragraphs to keep their readers’ attention.
Short paragraphs are concise and to the point. They’re easier to read or skim than long ones. Commercial writers will even use subheadings to split up information further. Long walls of connected text can be daunting to a reader, especially if the reader is looking for specific information.
That’s why e-commerce websites use short paragraphs and keep the information on their pages sparse. Online writing is extremely concise.
Just look at the paragraphs in this article.
Businesses want it to be as easy as possible for their consumers to find the products they need. Companies don’t want frustrated visitors to leave their sites and take their business elsewhere.
Authors also use short paragraphs in novels to improve the flow of their writing. Readers can get confused and lose track of where they are in a story if too much information is jammed into a single paragraph. Concise paragraphs help drive the plot and keep a story exciting.
When to write longer paragraphs
It’s OK to use long paragraphs in certain types of writing, like information-dense documents. Long paragraphs can be useful when a writer needs to explore a complex idea thoroughly. White papers and business-to-business (B2B) copywriting projects have immense paragraphs with copious data.
Whether you should use longer paragraphs in your writing depends on the format and your audience. While you wouldn’t write a promotional flier as one long paragraph, experts can easily digest information about their field. They can follow large paragraphs filled with data and industry jargon if the subject is related to their skillset.
For example, an experienced backend programmer will likely have no problem following a white paper about a particular Application Programming Interface (API), even if it has long paragraphs.
Paragraphs in academic writing are around six to eight sentences. Professors want to see the writer illustrate all of their research on the topic, which is difficult to do in two or three sentences.
When it comes to writing, the content and structure of a paragraph is much more important than the actual length. Here are some writing tips that can help you create more engaging paragraphs.
Stick to one core idea per paragraph
Each paragraph should explore one core idea from its first sentence to its last. If you try to touch on several different concepts in one paragraph, it’ll hurt the composition of your entire document and you’ll confuse your readers.
Coherent paragraphs are the building blocks of a document. Each one supports the overarching theme of your broader writing sample.
Let’s say your teacher assigns a five-paragraph essay.
The first paragraph is the introduction and includes a thesis statement. The last paragraph is the conclusion, which includes your findings. The three body paragraphs make up the meat of the research paper; each one examines a separate idea that supports your conclusion. Every paragraph has one, and only one, purpose.
Create connections between sentences
Every sentence in a paragraph should lead into the next one smoothly. Like essays, paragraphs contain a topic, a body, and a conclusion. Each sentence should drive the reader from one to the next. To do this, think from the viewpoint of your audience.
For example, let’s say you’re writing a blog about Search Engine Optimization (SEO) for a marketing company. Your target audience includes small business owners who might not be familiar with SEO or other marketing concepts.
Here’s what the first sentence of one of your paragraphs might say: “Great SEO can bring many potential customers to your business.”
Now, you’ve intrigued your reader by telling them what SEO can do for their company. If your reader is unfamiliar with SEO, they’ll likely wonder how it can attract clients. Answer their question with your next sentence or next few supporting sentences.
“By helping your company’s webpage rank at the top of search engine results page (SERP) for various keywords, SEO drives organic traffic to your company site.”
Transition words can also help you link the sentences in your paragraphs or link one paragraph to a new paragraph. Transition words establish the relationship between sentences and connect one paragraph to another.
While this list isn’t comprehensive, here are some transition words and phrases to help your writing flow better:
- As a result
- In fact
- In short
Good writing presents ideas clearly and concisely. Some writers use single-sentence paragraphs or even paragraphs made of a single word in their writing all the time. But even if you have to write paragraphs with many sentences, those sentences still shouldn’t be overly wordy.
Often, being direct is best. Use the active voice as much as you can. A good example can be found in Strunk and White’s “The Elements of Style”:
Vigorous writing is concise. A sentence should contain no unnecessary words, a paragraph no unnecessary sentences, for the same reason that a drawing should have no unnecessary lines and a machine no unnecessary parts. (p. 12-13)
A frequent mistake that can result in unnecessarily long paragraphs is trying to describe a complex idea one step at a time using several sentences. Here’s an example:
Michael’s determination made him want to be a partner at his law firm. He had a dream that he would be promoted from associate to partner. He worked very hard to show his bosses he deserved a promotion. Michael was promoted to partner. (43 words)
Here’s how you might combine the sentences in the above paragraph to make it less clunky:
Determined to make his dream a reality, Michael worked very hard to impress his bosses and was promoted to partner at his law firm. (24 words)
Make the most of your writing skills
One reason writing is so difficult is that there are so many writing rules, and very few are set in stone. Good writers break the rules constantly.
You’re taught never to start a sentence with “and” or “but,” yet magazine writers do it all the time. You’re taught never to use sentence fragments, yet you’ll find them everywhere in professional copywriting. And you’re taught that paragraphs should be a certain length.
There’s really no such thing as writing “by the book,” but there are resources available to help you write more clearly. And the more you write, the better you’ll get at it. Eventually, you’ll get a feel for how to write clearly, how to structure your ideas, and how to relate to your audience.
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