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Finding Optimum Paragraph Length

Brian Austin
Brian Austin Authors

"Short and sweet" is the central, underlying theme of this tip. However, first let's establish what a paragraph actually is. Although a paragraph has a precise meaning, in practice, different people may define a paragraph differently.

As the author of your thoughts, your paragraph preferences may seem to be heavily influenced by whether you consider yourself to be a "purist" or an "adventurer" in your writing style.

However, first and foremost, keep in mind the needs of your reader or listener. Nothing happens without scanning, reading or listening first.

For our purposes as practical communicators however, consider the guidelines below:

  • Start a new paragraph whenever your writing flow moves toward a new meaning - however slight the change in subject matter.
  • In general, aim to keep the length of your paragraphs short. Paragraphs of fewer than about 5 or 6 lines can help your reader absorb what you're saying more easily.
  • When writing content for web pages, sometimes even shorter paragraphs of about 2 - 4 lines can offer a better option. Why: your web pages may be read by users with a smart phone or small screen tablet device. On smaller devices, even paragraphs of 2 or 3 lines can wrap to take up most or all of the small screen reading space.
  • Do also remember that the ideal length for a paragraph depends on the purpose of the document you're writing. For example, a web page designed to sell or persuade may be more successful if the paragraphs are kept to under 4 lines.
  • When writing text for an article-type web page, you may consider paragraph lengths of up to about 6 lines may be acceptable when working with narrower columns of up to about 10 cm / 4 inches width (or the equivalent in pixels - the more usual way to measure width for web developers, for your device).
  • Depending on the context of your writing theme, paragraphs considered by your readers to be "too short" can be interpreted as "light" in terms of content value. However, a paragraph that takes up half of a page, comes with a high risk of boring your reader, or may simply get scanned, or skipped, remaining unread. Key tip: look for balance.
  • To determine suitable paragraph length, first write your content focusing on getting your thoughts recorded. Then decide how best to spread your information across your paragraphs.
  • If your website uses responsive web design, Take into account the width of your columns as they appear both on larger and smaller screen devices, laptops, notebooks, Internet TVs, smartphones. 
  • Remember, text that may display as a short paragraph on a notebook PC can appear as a long paragraph on a smartphone. Moreover, "long" paragraphs on a larger screen device appear as a seemingly endless stream of non-stop text on a smaller smartphone screen.
  • You can also use bullet point lists to help break up paragraphs into more manageable "chunks of information".  
  • The theme of your document, plus expectations of your readers or listeners, can help you choose what is the most suitable paragraph length for each topic you cover. If your paragraphs are "too long", or boring, or contain irrelevant information, readers may easily give up and move on.
  • Yes, you want to maintain interest for your target reader. However, you're not writing for everyone, only a pre-interested group. Nevertheless, sometimes authors who become exasperated from feedback of continual reader abandonment, may choose to write outrageous things to keep attention.
  • Sometimes, when you write using shock tactics, you can indeed help your readers or listenser stay more engaged with what you're sharing.
  • Do be aware, that while "shock and awe" may help you meet your captivation goals, your more extreme approach can cause other problems for you that you might rather not have.
  • Take a little more time to carefully and fully think through how your work will be perceived and whether the final outcome is what you truly want.  

Key tip: consider the symmetry, energy, punch, vigor and desired impact that your writing delivers. If how your document is received is particularly crucial, you can run a brief test using a two or three options - short-, medium-, and longer-length paragraphs - then ask your test readers for feedback to determine which writing sample they like best.