What Is a Paragraph?

A paragraph is a distinct section of writing covering one topic. A paragraph will usually contain more than one sentence. A typical paragraph will be 5-7 sentences, but this is by no means a rule. The length is determined by the topic and the content.

Table of Contents

  • The "Perfect" Paragraph
  • Indenting or Numbering Paragraphs
  • Why Paragraphs Are Important
  • Video Lesson
  • Test Time!

The "Perfect" Paragraph

The "perfect" paragraph will start with a topic sentence. It will have detail sentences in the middle and end with a concluding sentence. It will only cover one topic from start to finish.
paragraph structure
However, sticking rigidly to this formula is not always advisable. Even though the length of a paragraph is supposed to be determined by the topic, writers have learned to divide long texts into bite-sized paragraphs to avoid presenting too much text in one chunk. This is a justifiable technique that ensures readers are not over-faced. If you employ this technique, look for a natural break in your long paragraph. In other words, do not create the divide between two closely linked sentences, and avoid using pronouns in the second half that refer unclearly or ambiguously to nouns in the first half (called their antecedents).

Indenting or Numbering Paragraphs

A paragraph starts on a new line. Sometimes, paragraphs are indented or numbered. (Whatever format you use, be consistent.)

A paragraph could be part of a text that informs people, describes something, critiques something, compares things, persuades people, lists a process, makes an argument, offers a solution, or narrates a story. The level of detail will vary from text to text, so there is no answer to the question "how long is a paragraph?".

This diversity means that it's not always easy to determine what "one topic" means when dividing your text into paragraphs. For example, you could have a one-topic paragraph describing Venus (with the next paragraph describing Mars) or a one-topic paragraph describing the hues of a sunset (with the next paragraph describing its reflection in the sea).

So, what is a topic? That is another question that cannot be answered. Sometimes, a paragraph will be an aspect of a topic, sometimes it will be a topic within an issue, sometimes it will be an issue within an argument...a narrative, a process, a comparison, whatever. Whatever the scope of your paragraph, it should be neatly bounded as one aspect. If you prefer "aspect" instead of "topic," go with that.

Why Paragraphs Are Important

There are three noteworthy points related to paragraphs. One is a good tip, one is a style convention, and one is an observation.

(Point 1) In business writing, use paragraph titles.

A good tip for business writing is to give each of your paragraphs a title that summarizes the paragraph content. This serves two purposes. Firstly, it ensures your paragraph topic is neatly bounded, and, secondly, the title will assist busy executives with skim-reading.
paragraph titles
You could use a single-word title for your paragraph (e.g., Cost), but it wouldn't be as useful. Another useful tip is to concoct a paragraph title in your head (i.e., don't physically write it) before writing. This is a useful tip to ensure your paragraph covers one topic neatly.

(Point 2) Use several "opening" quotation marks if your quotation covers more than one paragraph.

When a quotation contains multiple paragraphs (or is a text with lots of new lines), a common convention is to use an opening quotation mark at the start of each paragraph (to remind your readers that they're still reading a quotation) but only one closing quotation mark at the end of the last paragraph. Look at this example:
In 1912, the publisher Arthur C. Fifield sent Gertrude Stein the following rejection letter shortly after receiving her manuscript for The Making of Americans:

"Dear Madam,

"I am only one, only one, only one. Only one being, one at the same time. Not two, not three, only one. Only one life to live, only sixty minutes in one hour. Only one pair of eyes. Only one brain. Only one being. Being only one, having only one pair of eyes, having only one time, having only one life, I cannot read your M.S. three or four times. Not even one time. Only one look, only one look is enough. Hardly one copy would sell here. Hardly one. Hardly one.

"Many thanks. I am returning the M.S. by registered post. Only one M.S. by one post.

"Sincerely yours,

"A. C. Fifield"

Note how only the last "paragraph" (in this case, the name) gets a closing quotation mark.

(Point 3) Your online readers won't read lengthy texts, so use your discretion to keep your paragraphs short.

In print, an unbroken lengthy text looks dull and daunting. On a screen, an unbroken lengthy text looks doubly so. Therefore, dividing a long text into bite-sized topics is essential for keeping your readers engaged. If we're being strict, each of your paragraphs should neatly encapsulate one topic, but, as we've touched upon, the definition of "topic" is pretty slack, and this often gives you some wriggle-room to play with your paragraph lengths.

Yes, there is a one-topic-one-paragraph ruling, but there's also a need to protect your readers from lengthy texts. Strike a balance or lose your readers.

This sounds like advice to play with the rules for writing a paragraph. Good. It is. If you're unconvinced that readers – particularly online readers – need lots of "whitespace", try Googling "the value of whitespace."

Key Points

Video Lesson

Here is a video summarizing this lesson on paragraphs. video lesson

Are you a visual learner? Do you prefer video to text? Here is a list of all our grammar videos.

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This page was written by Craig Shrives.