Paragraphs can be written in many ways. In nonfiction documents, for example, a paragraph may first establish context for an idea, provide supporting information, and then conclude with an impact or action statement that leads to the next idea. In fiction or narrative documents, a paragraph may show a single action or provide a character’s immediate response to an experience. Some writers use long paragraphs to fully explore an idea, while others may prefer short, terse paragraphs.
In all cases, however, the purpose of a paragraph is to present one idea to the reader. The complexity of the idea and the reader’s need for explanation determine the length of the paragraph. A careful writer will balance the reader’s needs with his or her style preferences. This brings us to a question I have been asked occasionally. How many sentences should be in a paragraph? The answer I give is based on the “one idea per paragraph” concept: at least one.
If the preceding paragraphs have provided sufficient information for the reader to understand the idea, and if the connections between the ideas are clear, and if the value and implications of the idea will be obvious to the reader, one sentence may be sufficient.
Unlike paragraphs with multiple sentences, a one-sentence paragraph places heavy emphasis on the idea. It is a high-impact tool for telling the reader, “This is very important.” Very few ideas require this level of emphasis. Used sparingly, one-sentence paragraphs can be very effective for pointing out critical ideas or keeping the reader mentally focused on the content.
On the other hand, a document with too many one-sentence paragraphs loses this effect. The writer who uses too many, or uses them too close together, is telling the reader that many of the ideas are very important. As a result, he or she loses the ability to point out specific ideas as being the most important. This is similar to always shouting. If you shout everything you say, no single shouted idea has more emphasis than any other.
Another problem with documents that contain too many one-sentence paragraphs is that they are unpleasant to read. Each one-sentence paragraph creates an emotional impact. The reader will need time to recover, meaning the reader is no longer considering new information as it relates to the high-impact statement. If the effect of the previous emotional impact has not yet “worn off,” adding another impact places emotional stress on the reader’s subconscious. Eventually, the reader will become mentally fatigued, and the entire document will lose value.
In summary, here are three guidelines for using one-sentence paragraphs effectively.
- Use them only for stand-alone ideas that do not need explanation.
- Use them when you want to create heavy emphasis for an idea.
- Use them infrequently.
One last note:
This does not apply to journalistic writing. One-sentence paragraphs are a common style for journalistic writing, especially in print journalism. For all other types of writing, however, these guidelines apply.