Paragraph Length


Quick advice regarding agency submissions

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Paul Whybrow

Full Member
Jun 20, 2015
Cornwall, UK
I've just finished reading You Belong To Me, by Colin Harrison. It's his eighth novel, and he previously had bestsellers with The Havana Room and Manhattan Nocturne.

One thing that struck me about his writing style, is that he composes very long paragraphs. The longest was three pages—about 112 lines—some 1,400 words! Harrison lives in New York, where his novels are set, and he's plainly passionate about the city. Some of these lengthy paragraphs consist of him pontificating on such things as the history of shopping malls and the use of illegal steroids in muscle gyms. Interesting as these digressions were, they didn't advance the story at all.

I was taught that a paragraph should focus on one subject, which should be discussed until it's completed. Harrison certainly does that, though I found my attention wandering a bit, almost longing for a paragraph break.

It made me have a look at how long my paragraphs are in my four completed novels. I appear to average out at 90 words, with only a few more than 100 words. I know that when I'm writing and I see a big block of words forming, I feel compelled to break off—more out of fear of boring readers with limited attention spans, than any lack of belief in myself.

How long are your paragraphs?

Are you intimidated by long paragraphs?

Do short choppy paragraphs put you off, as they make it hard to get a grip on the story?
I have a very low threshold of boredom and like variety in paragraph length as in everything else. Most dialog is short, perhaps to the point of choppy. Descriptions are longer, probably among the longest, but three pages???? I think a paragraph break gives the reader a bit of breathing room, and three pages is a long time to hold your breath.
I'm not intimidated by long paragraphs so long as they don't wander off and become boring or lose their way. If that happens, they need edited. If they're far too long and meandering I tend to think the entire book might need a tight edit and I switch off. If I remember rightly, Cormac McCarthy used to favour long paragraphs – but he could hold them, and the reader. For me, three pages is too long. I wonder what his editor was thinking?

Short choppy paragraphs don't put me off so long as the style of writing is right for the book. I like variety. I wasn't taught that paragraphs should focus on one subject, but I remember being told there was usually a natural break in what we had to say, and that's where we should give the reader a breather and start a new paragraph. But, like all rules, I guess it's ok to bend them.
My paragraph lengths have generally grown shorter over time, though I've never been one to write overly long paragraphs. I use the paragraph lengths strategically to modulate the pacing of a story. In non-fiction, of course, I use them quite differently--more along the lines of how we were taught to use paragraphs in primary school--one subject, one paragraph, with each paragraph having its own logical structure of ideas.
Short a few lines; maybe 8. Long are a real turn-off for me; they give me brain sag. As long as they stop/start at a sensible point - random is worse than long methinks.
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Quick advice regarding agency submissions