For many of us, when determining how many sentences we should include in a paragraph of writing, we think back to our grade school days when our English teachers delivered instructions for writing academic papers. If this is you, you likely recall that your teacher’s guideline was somewhere around 4-6 sentences. But today, the English language, the mediums we use to read, and our attention span for written words have all evolved. As a result, most readers now favor shorter paragraphs. Depending on your purpose for writing, your publication medium, and audience, your paragraph length may vary. Let’s break down some examples.
A Paragraph: the Simple Definition
The dictionary definition of a paragraph is:
A short part of a text that begins on a new line. It consists of one or more sentences dealing with a single idea.
As you can see, this definition doesn’t contain a rule about how many sentences a paragraph must be; in fact, it instead establishes that just one sentence can, technically, be a paragraph. So determining how many sentences should be in a paragraph of your writing has more to do with conveying intent and purpose than it has to do with meeting a quota.
What is the Purpose of a Paragraph?
Paragraphs function as visual cues for your reader. They’re a way for you to signal that you are switching topics, or introducing a new idea. When writing dialogue, whether fiction or nonfiction, they signal a change of speaker. While you are writing, you can think of paragraph division as a tool to help readers follow your logic and train of thought.
Length of Paragraphs for Internet Documents
Staring down a hulking wall of text on a screen is intimidating. So when writing paragraphs for online reading, such as email, blogs and ebooks, it is wise to create paragraphs that are short and sweet. Today, it is quite common (and acceptable) for internet articles, emails, and blogs to contain paragraphs that are only 1-2 sentences long.
Think about reading an article on your phone. With your small screen, 6 sentences would take a whole lot of scrolling to get through, right? Much of the reading and writing we do today is virtual, so this is why the “4-6 sentences in a paragraph” rule is one that you may find a reason to stray from.
Length of Paragraphs for Written Documents
Paragraphs in printed writing vary in length depending on the medium. Academic papers tend to stick to the 4-6 sentence rule. A good guideline here, when revising your academic writing, is to look at how your paper prints out and revise any full-page blocks of writing.
Once a paragraph reaches a full page, it tends to be a struggle for your reader. Look for transitions and changes of thought, or the introduction of a new idea, to identify a natural paragraph break.
Magazines and newspapers, while both nonfiction printed media sources, tend to differ in paragraph length, with newspapers typically publishing 1-3 sentences in each paragraph. The reason is because people tend to scan newspapers for highlights and take more time to read and digest magazine articles.
Tips to Remember for Number of Sentences in a Paragraph
Technically, just one sentence can be a complete paragraph. When in doubt, opt for shorter paragraphs, as this aligns with how most people read today.
Susan is an English educator, editor, and writer who has enjoyed working within these fields since 2004. Her experience includes teaching at the high school and adult continuing education levels, and writing and editing for multiple regional publications, including Wrightsville Beach Magazine and Encore Magazine. Today she is a copywriter and editor for CastleBranch Inc., as well as editor in chief for the company’s internal e-magazine. A Southern transplant who moved from Ohio to North Carolina, she has embraced the word “y’all” and can tell you how she likes her grits. Check out her official website.