The Power of a Paragraph

Formatting my writing has always been something that did not come naturally to me.  Since I spent a good portion of my early writing days on roleplay forums and writing fanfiction, I quickly got into some bad habits when it came to how my paragraphs and dialogue looked on the page.  From roleplay writing, I learned to use big, blocky paragraphs with dialogue peppered in wherever I saw fit.  It made my writing look dense and long, but it did not necessarily help my narrative in anyway, and that is what good formatting should do.

In my high school English class, I remember learning that a paragraph is usually 5-8 sentences.  For a typical essay in English class, this rule is perfect.  As a writer, it is one of those rules that is meant to be broken.  Some paragraphs will be longer, some will be shorter.

I recently read the book “On Writing” by Stephen King and his approach to paragraphs got me thinking.  He discusses how the format of words, sentences and paragraphs can cause the prose to breathe and dictate pacing as the reader goes through the book.  To show you how this works, I’ll provide you with an example using the same set of prose:

Example 1

She knew it was a bad idea to go back.  The worst idea, in fact.  Eleanor could not help but think of herself as a sober person about to hang out with a bunch of addicts.  Nothing could go wrong with that, right?  Sure, they were all creative minds like her, brimming with ideas and colors to put to canvas.  Creative minds also had a tendency to be self-critical and depressive.  If she threw her lot back in with them, she might find her inspiration again, but it all that creative energy might just end up flowing back into the people around her, as she tried to help them and hold them up.   Eleanor sighed as she came to a stark realization. It just wasn’t going to work.

Example 2

She knew it was a bad idea to go back.

The worst idea, in fact.

Eleanor could not help but think of herself as a sober person about to hang out with a bunch of addicts.  Nothing could go wrong with that, right?  Sure, they were all creative minds like her, brimming with ideas and colors to put to canvas.  Creative minds also had a tendency to be self-critical and depressive.

If she threw her lot back in with them, she might find her inspiration again, but it all that creative energy might just end up flowing back into the people around her, as she tried to help them and hold them up.  Eleanor sighed as she came to a stark realization.

It just wasn’t going to work.

By breaking up some of the paragraphs and utilizing the one-sentence paragraph, I give the reader moments to breathe and focus on parts of the story I want them to concentrate on.  I want them to know that Eleanor knows this is a bad idea, but she’s perhaps still willing to go back to it.  Changing the format can really change the way an entire passage is read.

Another thing I do, now completely subconsciously, is I vary my sentence lengths.  If all of your sentences are 15+ words, your writing will start to feel drawn out and long.  If it’s all short sentences it may feel more like a song on the piano played in staccato, sharp and punctuated, but the reader will never feel like they have a moment to take a breath. Varying your sentence size and structure is a way to give your writing a more even flow.

Just being conscious of both these aspects of your writing is a wonderful way to improve your formatting.  Do you have any other tips or tricks to help with formatting?  Please comment and share them if you do!

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Author: AubreyL

Aubrey Lyn Jeppson is a Freelance Writer. Who really wants to live in reality all the time? Writing affords her a much needed escape from the mundane into the fantastical. She's always looking for other writers and artists to collaborate with. Email her at aubrey.l.jeppson@gmail.com.

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