Editing for impact #4 – Get Rhythm – Paragraph length and flow.

Good writing is effective writing. In science writing, efficacy comes from your readers being able to absorb the information you are trying to deliver. If your work is so dense that it can’t be understood, or so boring that your reader switches off and stop reading at paragraph 2, then you are not being effective and your and your readers’ time are wasted. Most importantly, if your Science isn’t being read it is the same as if it had not been done!

Today’s post continues on a theme of making small edits to your writing to improve the “feel” of the work and your readers’ experience. This post will explore how paragraph length affects your readers and what changes you can make to help improve engagement throughout the piece.

There are no formal rules about paragraph length. This isn’t a post about right and wrong. This is a post about effectiveness and impact.

Before we begin, let’s do a quick self-assessment. Have a look at some of your previous science writing. An early draft of a literature review, or the introduction or discussion section to a manuscript draft or project report (early draft = before a supervisor has helped to edit it).

The average paragraph

Each paragraph should make a single complete point and it should be the length required to make that point.

As a guide, in formal science writing most paragraphs in the introduction or discussion of a manuscript, and throughout a literature review should be around 160-200 words. Some will be shorter. Some will be longer. However, if your general tendency is that the paragraphs are much longer then you likely are prone to rambling, adding non-relevant detail, or trying to deliver more than one key point. Conversely, if your paragraphs tend to be much shorter than 150 words then likely you are not fully supporting the point you are trying to make or perhaps you split you are splitting points that contribute to the same message.

The 160-200 range is for scientific text. If you are writing for the general public, the average paragraph length should usually be slightly shorter; ~130-160 word on average. The overall paragraph structure should remain the same for these texts (topic, token, link, token, wrap), but the complexity of the individual sentences will be less, there likely will be fewer caveats, and the result will be shorter sentences and paragraphs. You might have noticed that I have chosen to use relatively short paragraphs throughout this editing series; this is a deliberate decision to make the text less dense and therefore easier and quicker to read.

  • Formal science writing [lit review, introduction, discussions] – ~160-200 words
  • Writing for lay audiences [lay summaries, press releases, blog posts] – ~120-160 words

Each paragraph should make a single complete point.

Average does not mean every paragraph is the same!

I can’t over emphasise that these are guides to the average length. It is appropriate to use longer or shorter individual paragraph if the conditions demand it. Indeed, as we will discuss shortly, sometimes it is really desirable to break away from that average.

The length of a paragraph is one of the most powerful tools in your armoury in terms of influencing how your readers will experience your work. You can dramatically change the effectiveness of your writing, simply by reviewing and then adjusting paragraph length.

Don’t worry about paragraph length until you are at the editing stage of the writing process

Also note: I don’t recommend worrying about paragraph length during the writing of your first draft. It is better to write naturally and get “something” down on paper. Paragraph length editing comes after you have done structural edits to storyline. An effective mechanism is to look at the length of each paragraph and flag any with either fewer than  100 words or with more than 200 words to receive further attention.

Flagging paragraphs = editing tips

Structural changes will have a bigger impact on how your work is read than word choice.

Short paragraphs (under ~120 words).

Are trying to make a point that is large enough to warrant a whole paragraph? If not, should it be combined with the paragraph before or the following one?

If the paragraph is below 50 words, then you have not said very much, and it is likely that you do need to expand or combine*. If it is >50 but still quite short, then you should assess whether you have clear topic and wrap sentences and whether your token sentences are fully developed. Have you supported the point with the appropriate evidence in the right detail? Be objective and critical so you can deal with any of the issues identified. If you are satisfied that these points are all satisfactory then it is likely OK to leave it as is.

Be aware that if you have lots of mini-paragraphs back-to-back, then that section of your manuscript will feel disjointed. It will seem to your reader like you are never expanding on any of your points, your work might give the impression of being superficial.

*Of course, for every rule, there is an exception. A short paragraph that follows a longer one can be used to make an impact, just like this one just did!

XXXL paragraphs (over 300 words).

It is almost always best to split any 300+ word paragraphs.

Long paragraphs are harder for your readers to read, and they run the risk of any individual piece of information within the body of the paragraph being missed. During editing you might realise that the long paragraph covers more than one central point, at which point breaking it up is easy. Identify which token sentences are associated with each point then divide them appropriately. Once you have decided on the cut point, add a topic and wrap sentence to support and connect the new paragraph structure and you should be back on track.

If you simply cannot split the paragraph, then you have some serious trimming to do. Objectively identify what each sentence contributes to the message of the paragraph. You will need to remove some whole sentences. Others you can combine. Be ruthless in parsing down the length of the remaining sentences. cutting redundant or repetitive phrasing.

Wherever you identify anything that isn’t adding value, then it must go. Be bold; your readers will thank you for cutting the bloat!

cartoon discussing bloated paragraphs
I wonder if she got away with it!

It is almost always best to split any 300+ word paragraphs.

XL paragraphs (250 to 300 words).

I know I skipped XXL! At the 250-300 word length, you are in the “too long” category. Very occasionally it will be OK, but most times the easiest and best option is to split into two separate paragraphs.

Splitting is fine advice for one-offs but if you have a general tendency toward writing long paragraphs, then this is probably a sign that it is your writing style is causing the problem, Are you also writing long, meandering, sentences? Perhaps you consistently use two or three sentences to say something which could be covered in one? For the latter problem, remember that in science writing, the token sentences in a paragraph will usually deliver the information from multiple sources, i.e. one sentence will cite three or four primary references. If you are describing multiple studies each with individual sentences then your work quickly becomes bloated. Losing this bloat will make your whole work easier and more enjoyable to read.

L Paragraphs (220 to 250 words).

Every so often it is fine to have a slightly long paragraph, but if you have a string of these back to back it can be hard work for your reader. It will feel heavy. Use the excess length as an indicator that you need a general edit for brevity. You could cut one or more sentences or combine, but likely all you need to do here is cut excess words that aren’t adding value.

Using rhythm to improve impact

When we consider paragraph lengths, we also need to look at each paragraph relative to the nearby structure. This is a little more advanced advice, but as you develop your skills and confidence as a writer you can start playing with breaking paragraphs at different points to see what it does to the message.

Where you have multiple short paragraphs following each other, your writing will feel jumpy and interrupted. You might lose that ethereal quality “flow”. In these cases, your work might read better if you can combine some of those paragraphs to smooth out the journey. Similarly, a string of long paragraphs back to back can be a problem too. In this case, the long stretches might make a section of your work very heavy to read. You could consider breaking up one of the longer paragraphs to help improve readability.

Jumpy and heavy are the “problem” scenarios, but rhythm adjustments can also present an opportunity. Changing paragraph length can be really effective for increasing impact. Indeed, a deliberately short paragraph surrounded by long paragraphs, can be the best way to deliver an extra punch through deliberately disrupting a readers’ flow. The hard stop of a paragraph break is a much stronger way to define the difference between the points than can be achieved by sentence structure alone. 

And the counterpoint; a relatively long paragraph can be useful too.

Targeted use of extra length can be tactically applied to add emphasis to a point (we discussed this at the sentence level in a previous editing post). More words can subconsciously imply that there is a weight of evidence to support the point. However, this sort of balance change only works if the extended paragraph length is a divergence from the normal – if every paragraph is long, then no paragraph is emphasised in this way.

Deliberately changing paragraph length can be a powerful tool to influence how your work is read.

An example of where you would adjust length for emphasis is the discussion section of a manuscript (writing guide here). The standard practice is for the first paragraph to be a synopsis (S), followed by discussion of the main finding (P), then discussion of secondary findings (2) , then caveats/limitations (L), implications (I) and conclusions (C). If each of these paragraphs were the same approx. length it would be fine. However, you could deliberately edit so that you had ~120 words (S), 230 words (P), 160 words (2), 160 words (L), 160 words (I), 50 words (C). This structure would increase the feeling of depth of the main point and draw extra attention to the conclusion i.e. would focus the reader on the areas where you want them to focus.

  • Short paragraphs surrounded by longer ones, can help to draw attention to a specific point.
  • Using a targeted longer paragraph surrounded by standard length can establish a sense of depth or weight of information.
cartoon discussing bloated paragraphs
I consider my excess weight to be “added emphasis”. My wife disagrees.

And finally

Writing is a skill that takes practice.

Improving the rhythm of your writing is one of those skills that takes longer to embed than the closer in editing at the word or sentence constructions. Unlike phrasing choices, it is harder to absorb structural effects from passively reading papers. You need to think about the structure before you notice it (unless it is bad, then you notice straight away). Now you know what to look for, have a look at some writing that you enjoyed reading to see which of these concepts they implemented.

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