Although paragraph structure challenges writers, it is essential not only to help organize the content logically but also to keep the reader interested to the end of the document. On the other hand, if paragraphs are not structured well, the reader will have difficulty understanding the ideas being presented and will be unlikely to respond as you wish.
You need to know when to break the paragraph. Two of the most common problems I encounter when editing academic papers are paragraphs that are incomplete and paragraphs that are too expansive. While editing a graduate student’s paper recently, I came across a paragraph that was nearly 1.5 pages long. That, alone, is not a problem. A paragraph can be quite long, or quite short, and still accomplish its purpose—but only if it follows two essential principles.
1. A paragraph discusses one, and only one, idea.
2. A paragraph provides a transition to the next idea.
1. One Paragraph = One Idea
The paragraph is the vehicle to communicate an idea.
When writing, think about what idea you want to write about next. Just one idea. You should be able to summarize it in one simple sentence. Figure out your idea. Write a paragraph about it. Stop. This, alone, will ensure your paragraphs are the right length.
When editing, read the paragraph and ask yourself what idea it discusses. If the paragraph is correct, you will be able to summarize the entire paragraph in one simple sentence. If you discover two ideas, you need two paragraphs. Break it where it starts discussing a new idea.
On the other hand, if the beginning of the next paragraph discusses the same idea, then it probably should be joined to the previous paragraph. You stopped too soon.
Some writers write very short paragraphs, and other write very long ones. Both are acceptable. The scope of the idea, not the word count, determines paragraph length. In the academic paper I mentioned earlier, I broke the long paragraph into 4 shorter ones, each about 1 idea.
Here’s the central point. When the idea is complete, end the paragraph.
Let’s look at an example.
Policy manuals help staff and management teams run the organization. In best use situations, policies play a strategic role in an organization. They are developed in light of the mission and objectives of the company, and they become the media by which management’s plans are communicated to all staff. [idea change here] Standardized policies save the company hours of management time. The consistent use of such policies reduces management’s concern about legal issues becoming legal problems. Policies help announce management’s plans for growth, and they communicate the company’s investment in its employees. (adapted from http://www.templatezone.com/download-free-ebook/office-policy-manual-reference-guide.pdf)
The first part can be summarized as “Policy manuals are management tools,” and it discusses what policy manuals are. The second part can be summarized as “Policy manuals solve management problems,” and it discusses how policy manuals are used. These are different ideas, so the paragraph should break where the idea changes, as noted in the sample.
2. Paragraph transitions
Once we satisfied the one-idea-per-paragraph principle, we need to address how to get from one idea to the next. Not only does the paragraph need to discuss a single idea but also it needs to show the logical connection between ideas. This is the role of transitions.
The transition answers two questions: “What’s the most important thing to know about this idea?” and “How is the next idea relevant, given what I’m reading now?”
In brief, the final sentence or two of a paragraph needs to include words and phrases that reflect the next idea, even while providing a concluding statement about the current idea. The paragraph isn’t finished until you do this.
Let’s look at an example with the last sentence of one paragraph and the first few sentences of the next. The text that provides the transition is underlined.
“. . . Throughout the grades, teachers build this disposition by asking questions that help students find the mathematics in their experiences, and by encouraging students to persist with interesting but challenging problems.
Students who can successfully solve problems are able to apply and adapt a variety of appropriate strategies. These strategies must receive instructional attention to assist students to learn them, and opportunities to use these strategies must be embedded naturally in the curriculum across the content areas . . . .” (National Council of Teachers of Mathematics, 2000)
The idea of the first paragraph is helping students understand the importance of mathematics. The idea of the second paragraph is including essential mathematical strategies in school curricula. These are two different ideas. The transition statement at the end of paragraph one helps readers get from one idea to the next, even while providing a conclusion to the first idea.
Look at the underlined words. Here are the connections:
paragraph one – paragraph two
“students” – “Students”
“persist” – “successfully solve” (not word-for-word, but the same general concept)
“problems” – “problems”
The final sentence of paragraph one provides a concluding statement about the idea (the impact statement, the point to remember), and, as we can see, it provides a transition to the idea in paragraph two. Then it is finished, and the next one can begin.
Don’t worry about the paragraph length or the number of sentences in a paragraph. The number of words or sentences doesn’t matter. Regardless of what an English teacher may have told you, a paragraph doesn’t have 3–5 sentences. It has as many or as few as needed to discuss one idea and provide a transition to the next paragraph. Once you have addressed those two criteria, end the paragraph and start the next one.