The quest for the perfect paragraph

Karin Ciano, BridgeTower Media Newswires

Gather ’round the campfire, everyone, to toast a marshmallow and hear a tale of heroic feats of grammar and composition ... the greatest challenge writers face, the summit of our technical abilities, that elusive “flow” that keeps readers engaged and pages turning.

I speak of the paragraph.

In the beginning, the word: people, places, things, actions, relationships—concepts we understand in isolation, but without connection to each other. “Back garden shall if comes woodchuck dig that rodenticide my commit.”

Then, the sentence, linking words to create a tableau. “If that woodchuck comes back to dig in my garden I shall commit rodenticide.”

Finally, the paragraph sets everything in motion: “Next weekend our garden will be featured on a tour, so I’ve been spending my spare time making sure everything looks presentable. Yet this morning I discovered enormous holes in the lawn and a newly planted coleus dug up and shredded into pieces. As I opened the door to inspect, the glossy backside of a woodchuck vanished into the undergrowth. If that woodchuck comes back to dig in my garden ...”

We love paragraphs and our writing needs them—yet as subjects of study they remain mysterious. Clearly, text needs breaks, but it’s challenging to articulate exactly where they should go. We know it when we see it, right?

To some extent, that’s exactly right. Like the spaces between words (and the one, or two, spaces between sentences), the breaks between paragraphs cue our minds to recognize we’ve just been handed a chunk of information. Only when we get that cue, it seems, can our short-term memories retain and engage with information, ideally putting it into a context that will allow for long-term storage and understanding. Words are chunks (who what when). Sentences are bigger chunks that arrange words in the form of relationships (who does what to whom). And paragraphs are meta-chunks, telling us a miniature story with beginning, middle, and end.

Earlier this summer I had the pleasure of working with University of Minnesota Law School Professor Brad Clary to teach a short class on paragraphs. We discovered how challenging a subject it is to teach, in part because it needs more space than one typically finds on a Powerpoint slide, and also because the study of paragraphs rewards extended reading outside of class. So today’s column will only begin the discussion of paragraphs.

Clary and I reviewed the judicial opinions of Justices John Roberts and Elena Kagan, of then-Judge Neil Gorsuch and of Judge Merrick Garland, all of whom are excellent paragraph writers. From that study we derived several takeaways that may be helpful in the quest for the perfect paragraph.

The magnificent five (sentences)

“How long?” A common question folks ask when thinking about paragraphs is the appropriate length. Everyone (or at least everyone who’s been through law school) knows what a too-long paragraph looks like: it lasts an entire page of text with no end in sight. (As legal documents start to be read on machines—or worse, by machines—I wonder whether the multi-page paragraph will become a thing.) I don’t know about you, but if I don’t see a bit of blank space on the page to let my mind breathe, I feel a powerful urge to skip over the page altogether. Not that I ever would, but still. So let thy paragraphs be always less than one page in length lest thy readers rebel.

What about a one-sentence paragraph? Opinions differ. While I still recall a teacher who insisted that the minimum length of a paragraph was two sentences, we’ve all read one-sentence paragraphs and lived to tell the tale. But a one-sentence paragraph is strong medicine, almost a type of punctuation; I can usually get away with only one or two in a column, and frankly, I wouldn’t try it in most submissions to a court. Too many short paragraphs and my writing starts to read like a beach novel.

The ideal length appears to be between one and five sentences. (You’ll notice most paragraphs in this column have between two and five sentences, except the paragraph before last, which was a rambling seven.) Just for fun, next time you’re working on something, go back and edit to make all paragraphs no more than five sentences, and see how it reads.

Do citation sentences count for purposes of paragraph length? So glad you asked. They add to content but detract from flow, so they pose a challenge for the writer: the paragraph needs to flow whether or not the reader actually reads them.

Harness sentences to pull together

An effective paragraph demands that sentences work together. To do this, sentences must be not only internally consistent (in verb tense, number, and pronoun gender choices) but also consistent with each other. Consistency need not be matchy-matchy, but it must guide the reader whenever there’s a transition so that the reader understands what’s past, what’s present, and what’s future.

Look back at the paragraph about the woodchuck and you’ll see what I mean. The first sentence transitions from future (will be featured) to present (present perfect actually—I’ve been spending). The next two sentences are set in the past (discovered... dug ... shredded ... opened ... vanished) and the final sentence moves into the conditional (if that woodchuck comes back). Because the movement through time is signaled by transitional phrases (next week, this morning) it’s easy for the reader to follow, so it flows.

Are your five sentences more like a basketball team or more like random people in an elevator waiting for the door to open so they can escape? If the latter, you need to step in and coach. Which brings me to my last point ...


Yep, you knew it was coming. It may be that Justices Roberts, Kagan and Gorsuch, and Judge Garland naturally think, speak, and write in paragraphs. I don’t. If you’re like me, then your paragraphs will emerge from a first draft half-baked and misshapen—but worry not. With editing, you can change the breaks and harmonize the sentence structure, as we’ve discussed today. You can also craft attention-getting openings, memorable closings, and smooth transitions to help the reader