Paragraphs are

  • a unit of discourse that typically contain multiple sentences
  • a formatting technique, an element of visual language, that sorts chunks of related information into piles and thereby illustrates relationships among ideas.
  • an organizational schema (e.g., deductive, inductive, or causal organizational order)—i.e., a method of organizing, recalling, and sharing information.

Paragraphs are a powerful formatting technique, an element of visual language. Paragraphs are visual cues that help readers understand how chunks of information relate to other chunks of information.

Readers love paragraphs because they aid comprehension and facilitate skimming. People enhance recall of information by chunking information into similar and dissimilar groups. For instance, to remember a phone call, we chunk it into parts to aid recall, remembering 813-974-9469 rather than 8139749469.

Unlike punctuation, which can be subjected to specific rules, no ironclad guidelines exist for shaping paragraphs. If you are presented a text without paragraphs to a dozen writers or writing instructors and asked them to break the document into logical sections, you would receive, most likely, a variety of opinions about the best places to break the paragraph.

In part, where paragraphs should be placed is a stylistic choice.

  • Some writers and Communities of Practice prefer longer paragraphs that compare and contrast several related ideas, whereas others opt for a more linear structure, delineating each subject on a one-point-per-paragraph basis. Paragraph style is shaped by the rhetor’s persona, tone, and voice,
  • The rhetor’s genre dictates the length of paragraphs and practice of chunking paragraphs into sections under headers. For instance,
    • newspaper articles or documents published on the Internet tend to have short paragraphs, even one-sentence paragraphs.
    • articles in academic journals tend to have long sentences with loads of citations.

However, paragraphs are shaped by logic. Paragraphs are not just a group of sentences about a single topic. Rather a paragraph builds upon the foundation laid out by the text’s thesis and works in harmony with the other paragraphs. Each paragraph should serve a specific purpose related to the thesis—

  • to explain a relevant idea (transition and topic sentence)
  • to provide background information (introduce evidence/signal phrase)
  • to argue a supporting point (evidence)
  • to present counterargument (evidence of counterclaim)
  • to transition from eone idea to another.

When assessing the ebb and flow of your paragraphs, consider the media you’ll use (e.g., a TV commercial vs a Twitter post) and genre (e.g., an advertisement or a long-form discourse article written for well educated readers). For as much as paragraphs are shaped by the ideas being expressed, they are also influenced by the genre of the discourse and the media,

For instance, newspapers and magazines produced for high-school educated readers tend to use shorter paragraphs than those published in academic journals. When evaluating how you have structured your ideas, however, pay attention to whether you have varied the length of your paragraphs. Long chunks of text without paragraph breaks tend to make ideas seem complicated, perhaps even inaccessible to less educated audiences. In turn, short paragraphs can create a list-like style, which intrudes on clarity and persuasive appeal. Because long paragraphs tend to make a document more complicated than short paragraphs, you should question how patient and educated your readers are.

More on Paragraphs @ Writing Commons

Note: When you are composing, you need to trust your intuition about where to place paragraphs; you don’t want to interrupt the flow of your thoughts as you write to check on whether you are placing them in logical order. Such self-criticism could interfere with creativity or the generation of ideas. Before you submit a document to an audience, however, you should examine the structure of your paragraphs.

To help you edit at the sentence level, see Edit Paragraphs.