I started this unit by telling you that most middle schoolers write paragraphs that are too long!

That's true. But the real problem isn't the length of the paragraphs; it's the lack of focus. Middle schoolers tend to write paragraphs that wander all over the place.

So keep this principle in mind:

A paragraph should never have more than one main idea, or one speaker, or one setting.

The moment you shift to another time, or place, or speaker, or idea, you've muddled your paragraph and made it more difficult for the reader to follow your thoughts. You've made your writing bumpy rather than smooth. You're asking the reader to swallow a steak, instead of serving him bite-sized chunks that he can easily digest.

So let's return to this question: How long is a good paragraph?

Earlier, I answered, "between 3–5 sentences". But the real answer is this:

That depends. How many sentences can you write, without introducing another main idea, or another speaker, or a different time or place?

It's certainly possible to write long paragraphs, without losing focus. Here, for example, is a paragraph from the The Hunchback of Notre Dame, written by Victor Hugo. The paragraph is 12 sentences long, but every sentence is tightly focused on only one thing: The reaction of the crowd when Cardinal Bourbon enters the great hall at the Palace of Justice:

He entered, then, bowed to those present with the hereditary smile of the great for the people, and directed his course slowly towards his scarlet velvet arm-chair, with the air of thinking of something quite different. His cortège—what we should nowadays call his staff—of bishops and abbés invaded the estrade in his train, not without causing redoubled tumult and curiosity among the audience. Each man vied with his neighbor in pointing them out and naming them, in seeing who should recognize at least one of them: this one, the Bishop of Marseilles (Alaudet, if my memory serves me right);—this one, the primicier of Saint-Denis;—this one, Robert de Lespinasse, Abbé of Saint-Germain des Prés, that libertine brother of a mistress of Louis XI.; all with many errors and absurdities. As for the scholars, they swore. This was their day, their feast of fools, their saturnalia, the annual orgy of the corporation of law clerks and of the school. There was no turpitude which was not sacred on that day. And then there were gay gossips in the crowd—Simone Quatrelivres, Agnès la Gadine, and Rabine Piédebou. Was it not the least that one could do to swear at one’s ease and revile the name of God a little, on so fine a day, in such good company as dignitaries of the church and loose women? So they did not abstain; and, in the midst of the uproar, there was a frightful concert of blasphemies and enormities of all the unbridled tongues, the tongues of clerks and students restrained during the rest of the year, by the fear of the hot iron of Saint Louis. Poor Saint Louis! how they set him at defiance in his own court of law! Each one of them selected from the new-comers on the platform, a black, gray, white, or violet cassock as his target. Joannes Frollo de Molendin, in his quality of brother to an archdeacon, boldly attacked the scarlet; he sang in deafening tones, with his impudent eyes fastened on the cardinal, “Cappa repleta mero!”

It's a narrative paragraph, with no change in setting, and Hugo tells us that this "general uproar" occurred in less time than it took for the Cardinal to reach his seat. The focus is tight, and therefore the paragraph "sticks together" despite its length.

Advanced writers like Victor Hugo can get away with longer paragraphs, because they know how to keep the focus on only one thing. As you become more aware of this principle, you, too, may begin to experiment with longer paragraphs.

For now, keep it simple:

Start a new paragraph every time you:

And if you write a paragraph that is more than seven sentences, you should probably look for ways to break it up into smaller chunks. Two short paragraphs are almost always better than one long one!

Instructions for the Quiz

Answer the questions.