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Breaking up Isn’t that Hard to Do

Writing a block of text is easy, and I can understand why a beginning writer might feel inclined to do so when he/she is free-writing or composing a rough draft. One sentence follows the next.

But even after they had a chance to type, revise, and polish a free-writing exercise, a lot of my students and colleagues just don’t include paragraph breaks. I’m not angry; I’m just surprised.

I mean, would you want to read 500 words all rammed together? Probably not.

If nothing else, paragraphs break up a text so that they eye can follow it easily. Especially now, in our digital age, text needs to be easy to read, or no one is going to read it. If you want someone to read your writing, paragraphs are basically essential.

For me, paragraph breaks are also organic. After all, we don’t speak in chunks of language. We usually pause, look out into space to collect our thoughts, gesture with our hands, and let other people speak. No one ever spews out a chunk of language. If they do, I want to meet them. Or avoid them.

In school, when we were first learning how to write essays, we were taught the five-sentence paragraph. The first sentence is supposed to be your “topic sentence”. Three sentences follow the topic sentence with examples. And the final sentence states a conclusion.

Think of your favorite book. Could you imagine if every paragraph in that book was written this way, with five-sentence paragraphs? But your favorite book has paragraph breaks, right? Could you imagine it without paragraphs?

So, without any rules, how do you know when to create a new paragraph? Read your writing out loud to yourself, and pay attention to the places you feel inclined to pause. Those are probably the places where your thoughts need to catch up with your tongue, or where you would pause if you were actually telling the story to a friend.

If you don’t want to read your text out loud, dialogue is a fairly obvious cue to make a new paragraph. Pay attention to transition words like “however”, “also”, and “furthermore”. Also, make a new paragraph when you start a new idea, move to a different location, share a new example, or introduce a person. Do you have any tricks for deciding where to insert paragraph breaks?

Hell, even haphazard paragraphs are better than no paragraphs at all.

(Photo by CarbonNYC)


  1. Believe it or not, that’s actually one of my biggest complaints and turn-offs when reading a book. If one paragraph takes up a page and a half, it overwhelms my peripheral vision. Also, I immediately begin thinking, “How could the writer not know he shouldn’t do this to the reader?”

  2. If you don’t mind, I’m going to use this in class next week. We’ve been talking a lot about paragraph breaks (and the surprising lack thereof) in my student’s in-class writing. Every year we talk about it, and yet it continues. You did a nice job stating this in a user-friendly way, one that I think will appeal to my sophomores. Thank you.

  3. Reading Beckett’s “Molloy” taught me the importance of paragraph breaks. That story nearly killed me with its lack of breaks. Overwhelming.

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