“I advocate short paragraphs,” I told my class in Business English, after reviewing their term papers.
My obvious rationale:
Paragraphing helps readers to process ideas into meaningful chunks of thought—where one point ends and where another begins.
In sum, a paragraph is a section in a piece of writing that begins on a new line and can be as short as one sentence and as long as 10 sentences. No more than that.
"What?!" one student, who turned in a three-page paper with a single paragraph, almost lunged at me.
"ONE sentence?! A sentence couldn't possibly be a paragraph?!"
"Why not?" I tried nonchalance, while groping for some grace of patience.
"All my life I've been taught that a paragraph is a collection of sentences, not ONE sentence!" His mouth was agape—as though he just heard an earth-shaking news.
I flashed on screen a page from the book they were assigned to read. On it was this one-sentence paragraph:
"It is such a secret place, the land of tears."
His head danced the hula. Undeniably, he didn't read the book.
And that's the crux of my problem with millennials today. In writing assignments, many turn in papers with paragraphs as long as the River Nile, and run-on sentences that are not far behind.
"Give your readers a break," I pleaded. "Give them time to digest one thought before you introduce a new one. Long paragraphs give readers too much information to manage all at once. Readers need planned pauses, especially when reading complex papers/articles/stories. Hit the enter button!"
"As long or as short as you want it—to meet your objective. It can unfold for one page or consist of one word, or even one letter."
"ONE letter?!" This time he stood up, like spoiling for a fight.
I wrote on the white board:
I . . .
“This one-letter paragraph in a story is said by a character who was interrupted by something or someone. The next words are in another line below it," I explained, my patience now in place.
He sat down, wordless.
"The rule of thumb," I stressed, “is that each paragraph should focus on only one idea or concept or emotion. When you shift to a new idea, shift to a new paragraph. Make the enter button your friend!”
Everyone in the classroom nodded, except the petulant one. Question marks crowded his confused demeanor. His mouth moved but I heard nothing, not a peep.
"Our reference book," I grinned at nobody in particular, "answers all questions about paragraphs. Try reading it.”
For this advocacy (or argument victory), let me change my header.