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Wednesday, December 25, 2013

A US Copy Editor's Perspective: Paragraph Lengths

In General

As already discussed in an earlier post, vary your paragraph lengths. Variety is one of the six basic human needs. So mix it up. Long sentences are more appropriate for languid musings. Same for paragraphs. Whereas short, snappy dialogue makes for a faster-moving scene.

For dialogue, keep each speaker's words in their own paragraph. So if Bob and Sue are having an argument, keep Bob's slings segregated in one before you switch to Sue's retorts.

This works with silent dialogue, such as a nod or a thumbs-up, but also for action responses. You have Bob calling Sue some not-so-nice names. Then the paragraph switches to Sue, throwing whatever at Bob. She hasn't said a word, but her retaliation deserves its own paragraph. Again, switching back to Bob, we hit the Enter key so we have him cursing, dodging projectiles, within his own paragraph. Repeat as necessary.

When typing narrative text, keep one subject matter from another by paragraph breaks. There's a natural rhythm to these structures. And proper transitions help with the shift from one to the next. If you don't have the innate gift, go pull down a book by one of your favorite authors and study it.

Physical Books

I've read from several sources that readers like to see white space, supposedly lots of it, on a page of a printed book. That white space makes them read on, keeping those pages turning. Yet, on the flip side, I picked up two random books, one by Nora Roberts, one by her alias, J. D. Robb, and both didn't have much white space. Maybe these two were anomalies. Just saying...

Regardless this white space occurs when you paragraph. If you have a bunch of one-line dialogue sequences going on, then there will be lots of white space.

Think about when reading at night. As I get sleepy, I thumb ahead to see how many more pages I need to read before coming to the next chapter break, a logical stopping point (ignoring any hooks at the end). Ten pages of dense wording takes longer to read than ten pages with abundant white space. I take that into consideration. However, if I am too tired and there are too many pages to go, like fifteen, I stop right where I am in the book.


But when we get into e-books, the parameters change. You have no idea what device your reader will be viewing your novel on. It could be as big as a computer screen or as little as a cell phone screen.

Keeping all that in mind, you should avoid long paragraphs.

"If your vocation isn’t a vacation, then quit, leap, change careers."

Denise Barker, Author, Blogger, Copy Editor
Books that Build Character(s)

What lies behind you and what lies in front of you pales in comparison to what lies inside of you. Ralph Waldo Emerson
When you give someone a book, you don’t give him just paper, ink, and glue.  You give him the possibility of a whole new life. Christopher Morley
The best inheritance you can leave your kids is an example of how to live a full and meaningful life. Dan Zadra

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