Tool #19 Vary the Lengths of Paragraphs

Updated: Dec 30, 2019

"Go short or long —or make a turn —to match your intent." - Roy Peter Clark

When writers vary the lengths of paragraphs, they show their readers more than the written word. They reveal a purpose behind the writing. This technique is also applicable to sentence length. You can learn more about how to set the pace with sentence length reading last week's post

I'm also going to tell you how varying the lengths of paragraphs is an excellent technique for marketing. When a reader looks at a page, he or she may be intimidated by the brevity of the words on it. But, when one arranges the words around the white space, a beautiful form is born. Organizing your paragraphs to be aesthetically appealing is a technique that keeps your reader on the page, wanting more and more information.

How Does One Vary the Lengths of Paragraphs?

Let's start with another question, first. What exactly is a paragraph? You could describe the paragraph as H.W. Fowler does in his book, Modern English Usage. He says, "The paragraph is essentially a unit of thought, not of length." If we take this loose definition and define it on our terms, really, then a paragraph can be any length. 


Roy Peter Clark, in his book, Writing Tools: 50 Essential Strategies for Every Writer, explains that a short paragraph can "bring the reader to a sudden, dramatic stop. Did I not just do this above? But don't overuse it or you'll abuse it. Keep your paragraphs focused on the thought, but don't be afraid to create suspense with varying the paragraph length. 

When does a medium-length paragraph resonate with a reader? If you are writing for cause and effect, it is crucial to keep your paragraph at a reasonable length to produce an actual cause and effect coherent thought. The process may take anywhere from 100 to 200 words, sometimes less depending on what point you are trying to make. For advertising purposes, go for something a little shorter and make sure particular words POP in the paragraph. Take this paragraph, for example. It only contains 86 words.

Play with Paragraphs 

Maybe you've never thought about having a favorite paragraph in your life. Today is the day to find one of your most favorite paragraphs. It could be from your favorite book, or maybe you have a favorite quote. Find out if that quote comes from a long train of thought. Once you get that paragraph, see if you can find a way to split the paragraph into three paragraphs. Then, write your ideas about what you just did and later try to cut that paragraph apart. Or, if you are a blogger, find a paragraph that you wrote and see if you can find a way to break it apart. Then, try to expand on your idea. Give more examples. Dive into an area that makes you uncomfortable and see what you can find. Ultimately, your goal is to experiment with varying paragraph length to produce something a little outside of the box. 

Share what you come up with within the comments!

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Clark, R. P. (2008). Writing Tools: 55 Essential Strategies for Every Writer. Columbus, GA: Little, Brown.

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