Instructors and teachers often try to convince students that there is a hard and fast rule regarding how many sentences are in a paragraph when writing. Teachers expect longer paragraphs in part because there is less wiggle room in business writing and academic writing. In the world of creative writing, however, there is no fast rule that dictates how many sentences a paragraph must be.
How Many Sentences are in a Paragraph?
Three to Five in Paragraphs
When writing a news article, a paper or essay for college English, or business writing in the form of letters, there may be specific rules and expectations regarding the number of sentences in a paragraph. The general rule of thumb is that there should be 100 to 200 words in a typical paragraph. When taught by an English teacher, professional writing is all about structure, uniformity, and having an appropriate amount of sentences per paragraph.
Where This General Rule Applies
Professionals such as news writers know that long paragraphs are not acceptable for print publication. News writers who write for the teleprompter also need to keep their stories short; therefore, paragraphs need to stay within the taught parameters of three to five sentences. Keep in mind that the newsreaders need to be able to announce a story on-air in one breath.
When you write a long paragraph, you risk a news anchor having to pause for breath and the viewer losing interest in a story that takes too long to tell. You should be able to get the point of the paragraph across in three to five sentences, answering the essential questions and giving the most pertinent information. Most paragraphs in academic research papers and essays follow this rule as well.
Where This Rule Does Not Apply
This rule of three to five sentences in a paragraph may confuse many new writers who went to school and focused heavily on the technical aspects of writing taught in the classroom. Many writers come to the conclusion at the end of their education that what they were taught is the law and that anything outside of that is wrong, and quite frankly, bad writing. However, this is not the case in some types of writing.
Commercial writers are trying to sell you something. They aren’t looking to bore the reader. Instead, they are vying for the reader’s attention. To get this attention and keep it, these writers use short paragraphs.
Paragraph length should be kept short in commercial writing because you want to direct attention to certain aspects of a product or service, rather than boring the reader with long paragraphs that give information the potential consumer isn’t interested in. A very long paragraph will lose the reader, and they’ll move on and purchase a different product that doesn’t feel like homework to read about.
A paragraph consisting of the vital information is all that is needed. The main idea is given at the beginning of the paragraph sentences, followed by a couple of supporting sentences to back up the claim of the first sentence. This is how many commercial writers conduct find success. In doing their job well, they threw the rules out the window.
If you are a blogger, your writing is more casual and personal. A good paragraph tells the story as thoroughly as the author wants it told. It’s not uncommon for the writing style of a blogger to consist of paragraphs of drastically varying length, depending upon the content of the blog post.
You may have a blog post with lengthy paragraphs, short paragraphs, and one-sentence paragraphs. A good paragraph in a blog connects to the reader and gets across one point being made. Most online writing is done in this fashion.
Fiction writers, especially those who have some experience, know that they use many quick tips when deciding on how many sentences per paragraph. A single word can be a sentence. A single sentence can be a paragraph. It all depends on whether you have one speaker or multiple speakers, what the situation is, what the point is, and whether or not you can cram one idea into a single paragraph.
Those who teach writing make a big deal out of how many sentences should be in a paragraph because they are teaching the principles of a well-constructed paragraph. They’re not so focused on the actual number of sentences you need to have before you start a new paragraph. They’re more so trying to teach the mechanics of writing well.
A paragraph should begin with a topic sentence. This sentence could stand alone and get the point across. It is one sentence that tells you what the paragraph is about.
One or More Sentences for the Body
The body of the paragraph should consist of two or three sentences that give supporting information for the topic sentence. They provide detail and evidence and help a writer produce a full and well-rounded paragraph, but they aren’t vital to the main message or point of the paragraph.
The concluding sentence is the last sentence in the paragraph, which echoes what the first sentence says. The accepted way to think of about sentence structure, and the rule that professors and teachers try to teach is that you should be able to take out the body sentences in the middle of the paragraph and still understand the content and message by reading the first and last sentences of the paragraph only.
In essence, the first sentence and the last sentence are the ones with meat. The sentences in the middle of the paragraph are just fluff or filler. Introducing new information needs to wait until another paragraph. You should only explain the first sentence in the rest of the paragraph.
New Information Calls for a New Paragraph
You can expand on the point of a previous paragraph in a new paragraph, but if you have new information, a new paragraph is needed. New information should not be introduced in the body or in the final sentence of a paragraph. This is a tip that will help your writing flow nicely.
How to Start a New Paragraph
When you start a new paragraph, you usually do so on an indented line. This makes it easier for the reader to tell that you have a new main idea that will now expand.
This also applies to changes in the speaker when dialogue is occurring in a short story or novel. A new speaker begins dialogue on a new, usually indented line so that the reader can tell that the voice and speaker have changed. If you don’t do this, the reader is apt to become confused about which character is talking.
There is an Exception to Every Rule, Even in Writing
Just like you can have a one-word sentence, such as, “Go!” or “No!” or “Yes!”, you can have one-word paragraphs. In dialogue, if one person spoke a single-word sentence, and then another character answered him, that dialogue would be placed on the following line as a new paragraph. The idea here is to keep the reader from getting confused about who is speaking and responding.
Paragraphs in literature and fiction especially come in all sorts of forms and lengths. If you take a few minutes and go to your bookshelf and pull a novel down, it probably wouldn’t take you long before you found several paragraphs that broke the rule most teachers try to plaster into a student’s head.
It’s commonly taught that a paragraph has to be at least three sentences, but you’ll find some two-sentence paragraphs, even outside of dialogue. Shorter paragraphs in literature are often written to pack a punch or give weight to a point. Note the following written composition of a more succinct paragraph than most instructors encourage a writer to compose.
Eliza thought she had seen the last of the old man. He had moved away at the beginning of the winter, and she thought she was rid of him for good.
But she wasn’t.
There he was now, sitting on his porch as though he’d never left.
In the above example, there are three paragraphs. The first paragraph contains only two sentences, while the following paragraphs are both single single-sentence paragraphs. These single-sentence paragraphs are meant to build an air of mystery. “But she wasn’t” adds a foreboding and ominous feeling to the text, especially when it stands by itself. The number of sentences in a paragraph can sometimes depend on genre, but it depends on the content most of the time.
As explained above, how many sentences are in a paragraph depends largely on content when writing fiction. If short paragraphs and single-sentence paragraphs lend weight to a story, then it stands to reason that much longer paragraphs also affect a story. Paragraph structure can give us one-sentence paragraphs, but it can just as easily give us many sentences in a paragraph.
Some paragraphs contain up to ten sentences, and in rare instances, even more. Separate sentences that all aid in propping up the point of the first sentence can add up, and as long as they’re well written, stay on topic, and aren’t too frequent, they’re perfectly acceptable in fiction writing.
How many words in ten sentences? Well, if you go with the standard guideline taught in most classrooms that a sentence should have at least 15 words, how many words would you have in a ten sentence paragraph? The answer: a lot.
A Fine Line Between Good Description and Rambling
A word of caution to the long-winded writer here: knowing that you can write lengthy paragraphs does not mean that you always should. Your reader wants to know what’s going on, what characters and setting look like, and the plot’s details, but they don’t need to know every detail of the story. You need to walk to a line between giving a detailed description that makes readers feel like they are in the story, watching as an unseen observer, and boring the reader to death.
In the following example, you’ll see a very long paragraph. Notice that because there are many sentences in the paragraph, it doesn’t mean that the sentences are long.
The horse ran across the desert-like the devil himself was after it. Old and worn out before this journey began, the horse knew that this would be his last real run. He didn’t know the exact need for such haste from his rider, but he trusted the rider nonetheless.
The old cowboy mounted in the saddle above him had always been kind to him and had never run him too hard unless it was absolutely necessary. Sure, there’d been times when the old horse just wanted to lay down and die after a long chase through dangerous terrain or when outlaws ahead of him on the prairie turned in their own saddles and fired those horrible bullets from their loud guns. Even then, the horse never questioned his rider.
There were always sugar cubes, there was always feed found, rest given, and the rider seemed to know when the old gelding had hit his physical limit. The horse no longer saw them as separate entities most of the time. The rider was just as much a part of the horse, and his own tangled and graying mane was. The gelding ran this last time, and he did so with love in his heart for the partner he’d known all these years.
The above example is a paragraph that contains ten complete sentences. While it could be broken up, it doesn’t have to be because each sentence supports the first sentence or topic.
How Many Words Is a Paragraph?
In summary, a paragraph traditionally contains an average of three to five sentences. This paragraph has an estimate of 100 to 200 words. However, as different types of writing exist, this general range is not always strictly followed. Some genres can contain fewer words in a paragraph and may even have only one word needed to create a paragraph.
The content itself and the target audience are keys to determining how many words you should include in a paragraph. For instance, technical information may require more words to let the reader fully comprehend the concept. In contract, a creative story may only require a word to give an element of surprise or fear, such as “Boom!” Thus, “Boom!” can be a paragraph, letting the reader understand that something is going on and needs urgent action.
Therefore, there are no rigid or set rules in terms of word count within a paragraph. It is important to structure your writing based on the natural flow of logic, events, and scenes.
If there is a conclusion to be reached, it is this:
- When you write, pay less attention to how many sentences you have in each paragraph, and focus more on whether each paragraph gets an idea across clearly to the reader.
- When you write sentences, don’t do it with a set number in mind.
- Do so with an idea in mind that you want to convey.