The answer to this question depends on the type of writing you do. Are you planning to write an academic paper, a novel, a blog post, or something else entirely? Each format comes with its own set of standards. So, to cut to the chase, here’s how Merriam-Webster defines a paragraph:
“A subdivision of a written composition that consists of one or more sentences, deals with one point or gives the words of one speaker, and begins on a new usually indented line.”
So, by this definition, the length of a paragraph could be one sentence. Alternatively, you could compose a paragraph of infinite length as long as you cover only one point within it. Some authors have taken this idea to an absurd extreme, creating whole novels out of a single paragraph. For example, David Albahari’s novel Leeches consists of one long paragraph—proving that one paragraph can be as long as 300 pages. Based on the Merriam Webster definition, there’s no limit to the number of sentences in a paragraph.
Of course, by including logical paragraph breaks, you help the reader understand your arguments more clearly. Whether you’re writing short paragraphs or long ones, be sure to separate your central ideas from one another. As a general rule, essays should have an introduction paragraph and a conclusion. Within an essay, you might include any number of body paragraphs that cover different topics.
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For high school papers, many teachers expect to see an essay structure that follows a particular formula. The standard essay structure consists of at least five paragraphs—an introduction, a conclusion, and three supporting paragraphs.
In order to show that you’ve mastered the standard essay structure, you should include 3-5 sentences in each paragraph. Begin most of your paragraphs with a transitional idea that connects the new paragraph to the one that came before. This sentence also introduces the main idea of the paragraph. Next, include 1-3 supporting sentences that build on your idea. Lastly, write a concluding sentence to drive your idea home. The final sentence in the paragraph may also prepare the reader for a clever transition at the beginning of your next paragraph.
For the introductory paragraph of an essay, the rules are a bit different. Since you don’t need to transition from a previous idea, you can grab the reader’s attention with the first sentence or two. By the last sentence, you should conclude your introductory paragraph with the thesis statement of your essay. The thesis serves as a topic sentence, giving your reader a roadmap for what you hope to prove over the course of your essay. Not only does this sentence introduce your main points, it also provides a preview of what you’ll be saying in the conclusion of your essay.
What makes a professional research paper different from high school paper? For one thing, academic papers often include longer paragraphs, jam-packed with information. Writers must form coherent paragraphs, giving papers introductions, conclusions, and supporting arguments, all while maintaining a formal writing style and including dense technical information. You probably won’t see conversational language or silly attention-grabbers in an academic text. Instead, you’re likely to find lengthy paragraphs and more of them.
Blog Posts and Online Articles
The typical paragraph length has been growing shorter in recent years, thanks to the ubiquity of mobile browsing. Since so many people consume content on mobile devices nowadays, authors must be conscious of how their writing will look on a small screen. For this reason, even respected news publications have shifted to a shorter paragraph structure.
Many news articles and blog posts now include a large number of one-sentence paragraphs, even though such writing would have been considered too abrupt in the past. These ultra-short paragraphs allow for more white space and prove easier-to-read on mobile devices. When you’re writing for an online publication, keep your paragraphs short and direct.
Referring back to the definition at the top of this post, you’ll notice that a paragraph, “…gives the words of one speaker.” If you’re writing a novel or short story, this rule can be particularly helpful. With any piece of writing that contains a large amount of dialogue, you’ll be breaking for new paragraphs frequently. Even if a character only says a single word, you need to introduce a new paragraph before the next character’s line of dialogue. As you can imagine, a scene where two characters argue back and forth would require a large number of very short (sometimes even one-word) paragraphs.
Tips to Remember
As a good rule of thumb, try experimenting with different paragraph lengths. First, master the standard paragraph format, which consists of 3-5 sentences with a clear beginning, middle, and end. Once you’ve succeeded and you feel confident writing paragraphs that transition smoothly, try writing some dialogue. See what it feels like to introduce a number of short paragraphs. Lastly, when you feel ready to mix things up, give long paragraphs some love. See how many words you can write before a new topic introduces itself. After some practice, you’ll feel comfortable writing paragraphs of differing lengths.
Pay attention to the paragraphs you read over the next few days! Notice how many sentences the writer includes in his or her paragraphs. You’ll probably see a large variance. A textbook might have ten-sentence paragraphs, whereas a news website might have one-sentence paragraphs. Ask yourself, “Which kinds of paragraphs do I most enjoy reading?” Then, try writing in that style.
Who knows? Maybe you’ll find that you love writing 300-page paragraphs, like the author David Albahari. Just don’t be surprised if the person reading (or grading) your work doesn’t share that preference.
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Kari Lisa Johnson
I’m an award-winning playwright with a penchant for wordplay. After earning a perfect score on the Writing SAT, I worked my way through Brown University by moonlighting as a Kaplan Test Prep tutor. I received a BA with honors in Literary Arts (Playwriting)—which gave me the opportunity to study under Pulitzer Prize-winner Paula Vogel. In my previous roles as new media producer with Rosetta Stone, director of marketing for global ventures with The Juilliard School, and vice president of digital strategy with Up & Coming Media, I helped develop the voice for international brands. From my home office in Maui, Hawaii, I currently work on freelance and ghostwriting projects.