By Paul Burdiss
“An essay should be five paragraphs,” something we’ve all been told at one point or another. The five-paragraph essay is an important step in learning to write well, but it’s also something that can be difficult to grow out of once you’ve become comfortable with it. Perhaps you even begin applying that mentality to other things you write; even if you’re no longer limiting yourself to five paragraphs,
you may still writing paragraphs ordered by topic. If you’re like me, you’ve written at least one paragraph that’s turned out longer than a full page (double-spaced, 12pt. Times New Roman font, of course).
I’m here to say it doesn’t have to be like that, and in fact it shouldn’t be like that. Indents are important to readers, it gives our brains a brief moment to break and adjust. They’re important to organization as well. The five-paragraph essay is a basic method of organization, but we can do better. With a five-paragraph essay, we need to organize by topic; there’s not enough room to write everything we need to otherwise. When we’re breaking into more paragraphs, we have the freedom to break instead between ideas.
When we break between ideas, we can give each element of our argument and each detail of our story its own space to work its magic. Perhaps you’ve noticed me doing it here with this blog post. Paragraphs as containers for ideas allows us to keep our thoughts from getting lost in one another. It allows us to give as much time and space to a single element as is necessary without choking out the others for space.
Of course, these paragraphs can still be long – when I say “smaller,” I do not necessarily mean “shorter.” Smaller means a tighter focus; shorter paragraphs can be easier to read, but a paragraph that doesn’t say everything it needs to can be a detriment. Breaking too often can also be disruptive, however; unless it is dialogue, three sentences is a safe minimum to stick to.
This notion of “smaller” applies to all kinds of writing. For the creative nonfiction writer, it gives the tools needed to split narrative from argument, to control time and give space for elaboration where necessary. For fiction, paragraphs can (and should) be used as containers for characters, for narrative condensation, or occasionally for bursts of action in-scene. The notion of “smaller” becomes more
tenuous when discussing technical writing, as that often has stricter guidelines on format; organizing by ideas can still be an effective strategy, as long as the writing format permits it.
So, next time you’re writing an essay or a story, or perhaps even a blog post, consider your paragraphs. Be mindful of where, why, and how often you’re breaking them. If you find you’ve written five or six sentences and you haven’t started a new line, consider if you have more to say for your current idea, character, or narrative detail. Perhaps you’ve already said everything you needed to.
And most importantly, think small.