It’s easy enough to say that each paragraph you write should make sense. It’s an obvious thing for me to say, and all of you reading this are probably thinking,”Well, that’s not advice.” And you’re right. But beyond that, clarity in a paragraph means that each segment of text should have a distinguishing factor, a reason that it is its own paragraph. In short, a main idea that is summarizable. So, if a paragraph is separated from the one before or after it just as a break in text, for visual appeal or as a small breather, that’s not enough reason for the segment to stand alone. If that separate segment doesn’t have its own main point, its own idea or skeleton that makes it exist separately from the previous paragraph, then it shouldn’t be separate.
Don’t let high school lessons on paragraphs trip you. Forget the “a paragraph has about five sentences” lesson, and forget the “that paragraph is the entire page” complaint. If there is a reason for all of those thoughts to exist together, then so be it. BUT, that is the great and determining question, both for deciding if you need to break into a new paragraph or group smaller segments into one large piece. Ask yourself:
- Are like ideas together?
- Does this paragraph have a main point?
- Although related overall, does it exist independently of the previous and following paragraph?
Depending on your answers, you’ve either created a clear paragraph with backbone and purpose, or you haven’t. Revise accordingly.
If you have no reason for a paragraph to be on its own, if it’s a continuation of the previous paragraph, put it with that other paragraph. Keep like ideas together. Otherwise, have a good reason for your choices.
- Example: Breaking a paragraph in the middle of one narrative moment because the paragraph looks too long on the page versus purposeful/stylistic dislocation or repetition of an idea apart from the main narrative that contains it to achieve flashback or flash forward
When you do need to start a new paragraph, use topic sentences or transition sentences. They say, “Here I am. I am related to the general ideas of the text as a whole, but I am my own entity. I am taking you from the idea in that paragraph to this one, and even though we’re different, we belong together. I’ll prove it.” And then you use the body of that paragraph to prove it. I’ve always said, and any of my formers students reading this can attest, that if you want your reader to reach a certain conclusion about your ideas, you must lead them there with transitions. What you see as related may not seem so apparent to others without that clear signal. You’re the writer. Of course YOU know what you’re trying to say. Will your reader? As such, use that transition as the topic sentence which lends the new paragraph clarity for being its own thing, clarity/summarizabiltiy in its topic, and clarity in its purpose for existing in the story at all. Again, if the paragraph doesn’t do these things, it probably shouldn’t be there (either on its own, or maybe at all–see pro-tip on letting go of the junk).
Finally, keep in mind that all of this advice on paragraph breaks applies only to narrative and content paragraphs. Dialogue, of course, does not fit in this scenario because all new beginnings of dialogue, whether switching between speakers or switching between speaker and narrative, begin a new paragraph. This is a rule of formatting not to be confused with what I’ve said here about lumping large pieces of text together if it all has the same main idea. Please don’t do that with dialogue.
For more discussion, see the comments section below or email me at email@example.com! In the meantime,
Editor, Proofreader, Red Ink Enthusiast