300 Days of Better Writing

October 28, 2011

Guidelines for 1-Sentence Paragraphs

Many writers struggle with paragraph length. Is it long enough? Is it too short? How many sentences in a paragraph? Can a paragraph be just one sentence? Here are four “days” of advice about paragraph length from 300 Days of Better Writing, with an emphasis on the one-sentence paragraph.

Day 88: A one-sentence paragraph should present a complete idea.

Paragraphs can be written many ways. In nonfiction documents, a paragraph may first establish context, provide supporting details, and conclude with an impact statement that leads to the next idea.

In fiction or narrative documents, for another example, a paragraph may show a single action or provide a character’s immediate response to an experience. Some writers use long paragraphs to fully explore an idea, while others may prefer short, terse paragraphs.

In all cases, however, the purpose of a paragraph is to present one idea to the reader. The complexity of the idea and the reader’s need for explanation determine paragraph length. A careful writer will balance the reader’s need with his or her style preferences.

This brings us to a question I have been asked occasionally. How many sentences should be in a paragraph? The answer I give is based on the “one idea per paragraph” concept: at least one.

If the preceding paragraphs have provided sufficient information for the reader to understand the idea, and if the connections between the ideas are clear, and if the value and implications of the idea will be obvious to the reader, one sentence may be sufficient. 

Day 161: Use a 1-sentence paragraph to emphasize a critical idea.

Every paragraph discusses one and only one idea. In most cases, a paragraph will have 3 to 7 sentences. However, you can use a 1-sentence paragraph that satisfies the requirements for an effective paragraph. If the reader already understands the context, and if the idea is self-explanatory and does not require discussion, your paragraph may only need the final impact statement.

The 1-sentence paragraph only contains an impact statement.

Unlike paragraphs with multiple sentences, a one-sentence paragraph places heavy emphasis on the idea. It is a high-impact tool for telling the reader, “This is very important.”

Few ideas require this level of emphasis. Used sparingly, one-sentence paragraphs can be very effective for pointing out critical ideas or keeping the reader mentally focused on the content.

On the other hand, a document with too many one-sentence paragraphs loses this effect. The writer who uses too many, or uses them too close together, is telling the reader that many of the ideas are very important. As a result, he or she loses the ability to point out specific ideas as being the most important.

Day 169: Paragraph length is determined by the complexity of the idea.

How many sentences should a paragraph contain? Previously, we discussed one-sentence paragraphs and the essential components in paragraphs (i.e., context, content, and conclusion). Other than the one-sentence paragraph, a paragraph generally contains 3 to 7 sentences. But this is only a general rule of thumb.

The overall guidelines are these:

  1. The paragraph must be about one, and only one, idea.
  2. Everything in the paragraph must be about the one idea.
  3. The paragraph must link to prior and next paragraphs.

These three guidelines give you a lot of flexibility on length. The complexity of the central idea will, ultimately, determine how many sentences you need. More complex or broad ideas will need more content to discuss them, while very narrow ideas will need only a few.

As an analogy, think about a branch on a tree. The central idea is the main branch. The supporting ideas and discussion are the leaves that grow from the branch. If you extend this analogy a bit, you see how branches (i.e., ideas) are connected to each other.

Some paragraphs are long because, for the purpose of this analogy, the author chose a big branch that has smaller branches on it. Some are short because the author chose the smallest identifiable branch.

Here’s my recommendation. Follow the guidelines above and don’t worry about the paragraph length. Focus on the structure and content of the paragraph, and the length will be appropriate.

Day 198: Use one-sentence paragraphs sparingly.

The one-sentence paragraph is a powerful tool for emphasizing a critical idea. It is a high-impact rhetorical device. However, using too many one-sentence paragraphs, or using one-sentence paragraphs close together in a document, has the opposite effect.

If you use many one-sentence paragraphs, the reader will have difficulty understanding which ideas are the most significant. By trying to emphasize many points, you lose the ability to communicate those that are truly important.

Furthermore, each one-sentence paragraph creates an emotional impact. The reader will need time to recover, meaning the reader is no longer considering new information as it relates to the high-impact statement. If the effect of the previous emotional impact has not yet “worn off,” adding another impact places emotional stress on the reader’s subconscious. Eventually, the reader will become mentally fatigued, and the entire document will lose value.

One last note: This does not apply to journalistic writing. One-sentence paragraphs are a common style for journalistic writing.

In summary, here are three guidelines for using one-sentence paragraphs effectively.

  1. Use them only for stand-alone ideas that do not need explanation.
  2. Use them when you want to create heavy emphasis for an idea.
  3. Use them infrequently.

This are the strategies for days 88, 161, 169, 198 in 300 Days of Better Writing, available at Hostile Editing in PDF, Kindle, and paperback formats.

For a sample of 300 Days of Better Writing and other books by Precise Edit, download the free ebook.

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