Writing is tricky.
The same piece of content that earns you an A+ on your midterm would be thrown in the trash or deleted by an editor.
Why is that?
Well, one reason is what constitutes a good paragraph differs from medium to medium.
How to write a paragraph for your college professor is different than writing a paragraph for a freelance writing job.
The good news?
In this post, you’ll learn the differences. We’ll go over paragraph writing for the digital age, and we’ll touch on the writing skills and basics you need to know for school, magazines, and such.
But first, let’s look at why the rules for paragraph structure have changed…
Why Paragraph Writing Changed in the Digital Age
The main reason for the paragraph’s evolution is the way we consume media.
When we’re online, an onslaught of ads, pop-up notifications, cat videos, and vapid celebrity gossip are all competing for our attention.
As a result, writers have had to adapt.
Shorter paragraphs. More transition words and phrases. Variation in rhythm.
When we open a book or magazine, we’re usually at home or somewhere quiet. We’ll set aside some time and give it our full attention.
But online, we scan content and decide, within seconds, whether to stay or go.
To survive in digital media, writers have to account for shorter attention spans and increased competition.
So, now that we understand the why, let’s look at the how.
The Rules of the 2020 Paragraph
Rule #1. In Digital Media, Short Paragraphs are Mandatory
Online, one of the easiest ways to instantly turn off your audience is to present them with a big wall of text that has few breaks and little white space.
We have adapted to expect and prefer paragraphs that are short because they look and feel easier to read. Short paragraphs are easier to scan, and they allow readers to consume the article in bite-sized chunks, which helps maintain their focus.
Consider, for example, the ease with which you can read the introduction to this article by Mel Wicks:
Yes, Mel Wicks uses empathetic language and easy-to-read prose, which no doubt enhances her clarity. But you can’t ignore the sense you get just by glancing at her article that it will be an easy read.
This is the effect short paragraphs have on readers.
In the above article, Mel’s introduction has ten paragraphs. The longest paragraph is 42 words, and seven of them have only 12 words or less.
So, what’s the new standard? How long is a paragraph in 2020?
Well, in digital media your average paragraph should be between two and four lines. You can go over and under — some paragraphs are just one powerful word long — but stay close to that average and you should be fine.
Rule #2. Rhythm Dictates the Next Paragraph
Rhythm is the new arbiter of words. It determines where paragraphs end and where new ones begin.
Rhythm in writing is hard to teach. It’s not an exact science and doesn’t follow hard rules.
The more experienced you become as a writer, the more you’ll develop your rhythm. But in the meantime, you can follow these basic guidelines for when to start a new paragraph:
While you want to keep your paragraphs short in digital media, every paragraph doesn’t have to be (or need to be) short.
In fact, switching between short and long paragraphs will make your writing sing.
Here are a few noteworthy rules of thumb. You don’t have to follow these perfectly, but they’re worth remembering:
- If you just wrote one or two paragraphs that are four lines or more, shorten the next few paragraphs.
- If you just wrote one or two paragraphs that are only one line, lengthen your next few paragraphs.
- And if you just wrote three to four paragraphs of similar length, shorten or lengthen your next paragraph.
Too many same-sized paragraphs in a row will bore your reader. It doesn’t matter if it’s too many small paragraphs or too many long paragraphs.
Consider this excerpt from Jon Morrow’s post on earning passive income online:
See how he perfectly balances between short and long paragraphs?
Now imagine if the same excerpt was structured this way:
Even though all of these paragraphs are short, this text feels monotonous.
Too many short paragraphs make a reader feel like they’re on a rollercoaster ride with no destination — they’re moving fast but they quickly get confused about where they’re going.
Ultimately, you want to guide your reader. And the only way to do that effectively is to recognize when your reader needs a few short paragraphs, a long one, or a bit of both.
While topic was once the ultimate indicator of paragraph change, it is now one of many. Topic is still critical for clarity. If you change paragraphs at a topically awkward time, the split disturbs the reader.
Take, for example, this excerpt from Liz Longacre’s article:
Imagine these paragraphs were structured like this instead …
Notice the difference in how you read the original paragraph versus the variation.
In the original, the last paragraph tactfully emphasizes the difficulty of learning how to start a blog. But in the variation, you take a mental pause between “There are so many learning curves” and “Plugins you’ll need to install.”
And it feels off, doesn’t it?
The last three sentences are examples of learning curves, which means they are topically linked to the phrase introducing them (“There are so many learning curves”).
In digital media, readers still expect topics will — for the most part — stick with each other.
Short paragraphs naturally add emphasis.
They can be used to highlight ideas you want the reader to take note of, but they can also be used for dramatic effect.
For example, check out Jon’s introduction to How to Start a Blog in 2020 (+ Resources on EVERYTHING!):
Jon’s introduction asks the reader a question with a long paragraph. And then, for emphasis, he adds: “But there’s not. It’s totally real.”
This paragraph conveys a dramatic turn of events. The shortness of the paragraph emphasizes this.
The longer paragraph preps the reader for the punch, and the short paragraph brings it home.
You don’t always have to go from a long paragraph to a short paragraph to create emphasis. You can also use a gradual decline in word count and finish with your main point. This builds the reader up to the punchline.
Here’s another example, taken from The Brutally Honest Guide To Being Brutally Honest.
The author, Josh Tucker, decreases wordcount over three relatively short paragraphs to bring attention to his final sentence: “How you end the discussion can make all the difference.”
Think of paragraph length in the same way you think about the rest of your writing. Your word choice, sentence length, and paragraph structure all have a massive impact on what your article communicates.
Writing a Paragraph Readers Will Love Isn’t Hard
Not anymore, anyway.
Despite the difficulty in grabbing the attention of today’s digital readers, you now know how to turn visitors into content absorbers by crafting easy-to-read paragraphs — paragraphs that are short, rhythmic, and varied.
And, you now know a few pointers for what it takes to craft content teachers, professors, and editors in print media will adore.
Know your audience, and know how paragraphs should be constructed for said audience.
Do that and you’re golden.
Readers will appreciate your courteous writing and — dare I say? — they’ll keep coming back for more.