Cut my steak, please!

I love a thick, juicy, steak. But when I eat steak, I don't pick it up with two hands and start stuffing it all into my mouth, ripping and tearing and chewing until it's all gone. Who eats steak that way?

Like most people, I like to cut my steak into bite-sized pieces. Nice, savory, easily-digestible chunks. And I like to pause between chews, to catch my breath and to better savor the pleasures of each new bite.

A page of text is not so different. It's like a steak; it needs to be cut up.

But here's the difference: As a diner, I'm willing to cut up my own steak. As a reader, I'm not. That's not my job. It's the writer's job to present the material in easily-digestible chunks. Writers who fail to do this soon lose my attention. I'll pick up something else that's easier to read.

So . . . how long should my paragraphs be?

A good paragraph is about 3–5 sentences. Of course, there are many exceptions.

But my teachers have always told me to write longer paragraphs!

That's unfortunate. Probably, they were trying to get you to write more. Teachers are always trying to get students to write more. But you can write more, while still keeping your paragraphs short. Two short paragraphs are almost always better than one long one.

But I like my long paragraphs!

Yes, but nobody else does.

That's not true! A lot of people like reading long paragraphs!

Sigh . . . I've had this argument with students before. Sometimes, to prove my point, I'll say this:

"I challenge you. I challenge you to find me a paragraph in any published book that is longer that seven sentences. In fact, I'll give you a quarter for each paragraph that you can show me that is longer than seven sentences."

When I say this to a class, the students get all excited. They rush to the bookshelves of our classroom library, searching for a paragraph with more than seven sentences. And, I'll admit, I usually end up having to pay out five or six quarters.

But I've proved my point. It's not as easy as you might think. Published authors know that readers like short paragraphs.

Of course, there are exceptions. Textbooks are sometimes notoriously dense and filled with paragraphs that are far too long. That's why we call them dense. And that's why no one likes to read them.

Keep your paragraphs short.


Instructions for the Quiz

Answer the questions.