I’ve been thinking about paragraphs.
Increasingly, I find my paragraphs devolving into single sentences, like the one above. Surely this isn’t how I was taught? I remember concepts like: “A paragraph is a collection of related sentences dealing with a single topic.”
I remember something about a topic sentence, followed by at least three sentences to support it.
I remember something about indenting, too.
When I write now, though, I usually just work on one paragraph until it seems like it’s time to go on to the next. As with so much else in writing, I don’t think about it a whole lot. So I’ve been thinking, do those rules I was taught still apply?
I looked it up.
It turns out the statement above, “a paragraph is a collection of related sentences…etc,” can be found in the Purdue Online Writing Lab, known to fans (like me) everywhere as the “Purdue OWL.” . (All right. I copied it from there.) The OWL is an excellent resource for basic information about grammar and writing conventions. So I must assume it is right in this case. In fact, I recommend checking out the link if you’re at all confused about paragraphing, because I’m here to say it contains some highly useful information.
For instance, it also addresses the topic sentence/supporting sentence structure question. And it turns out to be more lenient than my junior high teachers were on the subject, saying:
Although not all paragraphs have clear-cut topic sentences, and despite the fact that topic sentences can occur anywhere in the paragraph (as the first sentence, the last sentence, or somewhere in the middle), an easy way to make sure your reader understands the topic of the paragraph is to put your topic sentence near the beginning of the paragraph.
But, despite what the OWL says, I’m still not convinced a paragraph is always defined by its subject matter anymore. At least not in the case of online content.
Because here’s what’s happened since I went to junior high. Actually, since way after I went to junior high, but let’s not dwell on that. Most of the written matter I consume has migrated to a 14” screen. Or way smaller. And, not the least bit coincidentally, my attention span has diminished dramatically, along with, I suspect, the attention span of just about every other sentient being. This last phenomenon, I think we can agree, is a direct result of the ease with which we can (and do) switch among reading matters, pause for some viewing matter, stop to change Pandora channels, get interrupted by the chirp of a new text message, etc.
(Speaking of short attention spans, I was bemused to hear that one of my literary heroes, Philip Roth, had announced his retirement. Can a writer retire? Really? But I was also fascinated, horrified and just a little relieved to read that he—even he— claims to now spend a good amount of time daily playing with his iPhone.)
Ok, where was I? Paragraphs.
I submit that on paper, paragraphs have a dual function. They organize ideas into discrete, content-driven bundles. And they make text easier on the eye. Paragraphs on a screen have the same dual function, with this important difference: thanks to all the myriad distractions inherent in getting information from a screen, easier on the eye moves from a secondary to a primary function of paragraphs.
In other words, when you’re writing for a screen, your paragraphs need to be short. And shorter.
Often, they will be one sentence.
And even with short paragraphs, you may still need to guide your harassed reader down the page with judicious use of boldface, bullets and other such tricks.
You still need to think of organizing information according to subject, just as you were taught. But you also have to think in terms of organizing according to visual appeal.
Oh, and about those indents. They’re still doing it in books and newspapers. My kids are still doing it at school. But I sure haven’t seen a whole lot of evidence of indented paragraphs on the small screen. My guess is indents just make it harder to take in information, and are easily replaced by judicious use of line spacing.