You’re reading a paragraph right now, and you’ll read a bunch more by the end of this. Paragraph comes from Old French and initially referred to a symbol appearing next to text (¶). Eventually, each section of text appearing beside that symbol was also referred to as a paragraph. Since then, students and seasoned writers alike have wondered how long a paragraph is supposed to be. The short answer: It depends!
The main goal of a paragraph is to present an idea, but the rules around that can vary based on the medium, who you’re writing for, and your mood.
The general rule that you’ll see is that a paragraph should be three to five sentences. Some people say that a paragraph is 100 to 200 words long. These are useful rules for people just learning how to write, but they aren’t set in stone.
You can have a paragraph that is one sentence (sometimes even just one word) long, or you can have a paragraph that’s several pages long.
School papers will vary from grade to grade and from high school to college. If you’re working with the classic five-paragraph essay, you can aim for the typical three to five sentences per paragraph. For other papers, your teacher might expect up to 10 sentences per paragraph, but keep in mind that even sentence length is fairly fluid, especially when you factor in clauses.
School papers, including essays, book reports, and term papers, teach you how to present your ideas, and paragraphs are part of that. Most teachers will tell you that a paragraph includes an introductory topic sentence, a few sentences to support that topic, and a concluding sentence to transition to your next idea, which gives you that three-to-five-sentence range.
Novels and other forms of creative writing historically do away with many of the trappings of more formal writing, including paragraph length. For example, the opening line of Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 is one sentence:
It was a pleasure to burn.
Compare that to the opening paragraph of Moby Dick by Herman Melville:
Call me Ishmael. Some years ago — never mind how long precisely — having little or no money in my purse, and nothing particular to interest me on shore, I thought I would sail about a little and see the watery part of the world. It is a way I have of driving off the spleen, and regulating the circulation. Whenever I find myself growing grim about the mouth; whenever it is a damp, drizzly November in my soul; whenever I find myself involuntarily pausing before coffin warehouses, and bringing up the rear of every funeral I meet; and especially whenever my hypos get such an upper hand of me, that it requires a strong moral principle to prevent me from deliberately stepping into the street, and methodically knocking people’s hats off — then, I account it high time to get to sea as soon as I can. This is my substitute for pistol and ball. With a philosophical flourish Cato throws himself upon his sword; I quietly take to the ship. There is nothing surprising in this. If they but knew it, almost all men in their degree, some time or other, cherish very nearly the same feelings towards the ocean with me.
Of course, William Faulkner wrote a three-sentence paragraph in Absalom, Absalom that included one sentence that was 1,288 words long.
Online blogs are closer to creative writing in terms of doing away with formalities. There are no (or at least very few) rules to writing online.
If anything, paragraphs tend to be shorter online. Most people are reading on phones or smaller screens, and more negative space and shorter paragraphs allow for easier reading. On informal, non-journalistic sites, it’s not uncommon to see paragraphs that are a single line.
There isn’t any real set or easy rule for how to split your paragraphs or when to start new ones for easy skimmability. Much of it comes down to your writing style and your general feel for writing the more you do it.
Generally, you should start a new paragraph when:
- You are starting a new point or idea
- You feel like giving your reader a break or pause
- You are presenting contrasting ideas
If you find yourself writing a paragraph that you think looks bloated, read it back to see if you’re actually combining multiple ideas that could be broken up. At the same time, there’s nothing necessarily wrong with a chunky paragraph if you feel that it’s necessary or believe yourself to be the next Faulkner.
You should definitely split dialogue into separate paragraph breaks when you switch to a new speaker. For example:
They asked, “Are you sure you want pizza again?”
“You can never have too much pizza,” he responded.
“Extra olives this time, please,” she said.
Simply put, a paragraph is as long or as short as you need it to be.