When it comes to writing, there are a handful of rules that are set in stone.
When you were in high school, you were probably given guidelines on how to organize, set up, and write your essays. The standard high school essay consists of an introduction paragraph (containing your thesis), three body paragraphs, and a conclusion that references your thesis to connect the essay neatly.
Although the format of an essay remains relatively uniform, various teachers have different rules when it comes to the length of a paragraph. Unlike strict writing styles like MLA format, the composition of a body paragraph is a bit more flexible.
How long is a paragraph?
Your grade school teacher wasn’t wrong. Generally, a paragraph should be made up of three to five sentences. However, it’s crucial to understand that the purpose of teaching this guideline isn’t to instill a strict writing rule but to teach writers that the idea within the paragraph should be concise enough to fill just three sentences.
|Note: Writing styles can differ. Although the three to five sentence paragraph rule is widely accepted, a paragraph can be a single sentence or even a single word. These cases are largely used in creative writing and should be avoided when writing essays or report style pieces.|
How to write a paragraph
The basic rule-of-thumb when it comes to the content that’s actually inside a paragraph is to speak to one idea and that idea alone. If a paragraph contains multiple ideas, it is more likely that they aren’t thoroughly explained. Talking about a couple of ideas at once doesn’t allow you to fully develop a strong paragraph.
Rather, focusing on one idea per paragraph will help you build a strong case for said idea. When you start a paragraph reading about one topic and end it on a totally different one, the writer has lost focus. This is why it’s important to stick to this one idea rule, and use evidence like examples, quotes, statistics, or definitions when called for.
Start your paragraph with a sentence that outlines the main idea, then use the following three sentences to cite evidence that supports it. Finally, the last sentence should draw a conclusion from the evidence and prove your idea’s validity.
Academic writing provides the best example of this idea-evidence-conclusion paragraph format. Let's look at an example:
* Example paragraph courtesy of the University of Washington
Looking at this sample paragraph, you can see that the idea is presented, supported, and brought to a clean conclusion. As you continue to sharpen your writing skills through your years in school, you’ll learn the natural rules of a good paragraph construction and know what’s accepted and the practices you should avoid.
When to use a short paragraph
I’m sure you’ve seen writers use shorter paragraphs before. Crack open just about any book, especially if it’s fiction, and you’ll see plenty of examples. If character dialogue is used, a new paragraph will start every time a new speaker begins talking.
Blog and news writers often use short paragraphs in order to keep the reader’s attention. They know that most people won’t read a huge block of closely-spaced text, so they keep paragraphs succinct. Headers are also utilized in order to call out a paragraph’s main idea so readers can easily find the information they’re looking for.
|Related: If you’re a writer yourself and want to keep track of how long your paragraphs are, read our guide on how to use word count in Word.|
When you’re writing, always start a new paragraph every time you introduce a new thought that contributes to the theme of your piece as a whole. Every paragraph should be treated as a collection of sentences that discuss one idea. If the idea changes, it’s time for a new paragraph.
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All writing styles are unique
When it comes down to it, the main goal of crafting a paragraph is to maintain the reader’s attention and keep them engaged. Although there are infinite ways to write, the standard rule-of-thumb is to usually avoid writing anything more than eight sentences.
That being said, there are no rules that are set in stone about how many words, lines, or sentences a paragraph should be. Different writing professions use different rules. Journalism students keep their sentences short and to the point. Fiction writers may feel comfortable writing a full-page paragraph. One-sentence paragraphs are used all the time.
Write freely. The grammar police don’t exist.