Paragraphs and Sentences
in Prose: Long or Short?

For the reader everything must be helpfully in paragraphs. One function of paragraphs is simply visual, to break up the whole piece. More than this it is about the arrangement of ideas into logical steps.
Paragraphs establish patterns of arguments. A paragraph should indicate internal connection, and spaces in between a pause. If a report is being constructed, a paragraph may be numbered and this imposes quite a discipline. This might be too rigid outside a report, but it is useful to imagine numbering paragraphs and asking if this would work in a report format.
Paragraphs (except in reports) do not distinguish between a section and a subsection (though there is a sometimes an inconsistent and utidy tendency to have next-line indented paragraphs and space-between paragraphs). Therefore a substantive point can be made over several paragraphs and elsewhere made within one paragraph. Having said this, paragraphs do not need to be even roughly of the same size; it is just that odd seemingly overlong paragraphs become a job to wade through.
It can be argued that sorting out paragraphing sorts out sentences. Good sentences in overlong and illogical paragraphs ruins their impact and meaning. A sentence occupies a place in a paragraph, at a certain stage in the argument. So a logical paragraph in its beginning, stages and end regarding the point made is very helpful to the reader.
It can be that each sentence is one small step and each paragraph one short section of an argument, but this does not have to be so rigid.
Short sentences are always easier to read and to write. However, a longer well constructed sentence is also easier to read when carrying complex ideas well. Good prose is seldom written entirely in short sentences. If it is too difficult to write, write short sentences as a fall-back position.
Short sentences are better for introducing something new, so they give a chance to the reader to gather the main introductory points and prepare the reader for longer more in-depth points. Shorter sentences should then be used for stages in an argument, perhaps one point per sentence. Short sentences can also be used in a conclusion, to slow the reader down and emphasise each point.
Some people less capable of reading or digesting ideas need shorter sentences. Some need to be less than 10 words to be easy. Sentences of more than 20 words are potentially difficult and beyond 30 words requires a reader of some intellectual power and a writer of good organisation.
Sentences within prose need to break up rhythm. Think of prose being like a suspension bridge that cannot develop regular movements. However, the rhythm that does take place must help the reader within every sentence, to assist the meaning the sentence conveys. Handled properly by the writer, a topic is made more interesting and even easier to read (arguably positive interest correlates positively with an ability to read). The key is the emphasis coming upon the most important words and developing shades of meaning around them. Obviously a key factor here is how punctuation marks are used in distributing pauses and establishing areas of meaning. Punctuation and pauses help a sentence to be read out aloud, and if they are in the right place an audience will remember more.
This raises the issue of sounds, including sounds in the head from silent reading and what clashes within prose. The following should be avoided, especially within academic work.
Avoid alliteration, including the use of s
Care with adding s to some words (like forward and toward)
Don't repeat words near to each other with a change of meaning
Don't repeat sounds close by, however spelt
Avoid repeating syllables close together even when these are in different words
There is no stage in academic writing of producing a special style with apparantly better prose (such as using added adjectives and adverbs). In fact the text should never be indulgent but be economic, the simplest of journeys between start and end of each sentence. All redundancy in a sentence should be removed, along with ornament and repetition.
Furthermore, a sentence should be clear in meaning, so that what is ambiguous is removed, along with the irrelevant.
Style then follows this economy; clearly people are different in how a piece is typed, but the rules of economy should still apply. This produces the style. Rhetoric does not.
Deciding what to put and in what order also delivers the overall style. This means essay planning. What is the case for a sentence is also the case with the whole piece. It should be logical and economic as a whole, as a narrative.
Narrative does not mean going in order. It means:
Focusing on the main point that illustrates the whole at the beginning
Going into supporting depth
Including background information
All other information in terms of detail
Rounding off in summary, conclusion
An extra in what may follow on
There is a tendency among students to add filler, and in places to repeat or add nothing much to make up a word count. This is a pointless activity. A suggested word length is because this should constrain the expected rich content. If there is less to put in, not enough has been researched. If there is no suggested word length, why fill beyond content just because it seems like less is in. What other than a random mark on the subject might be earned? Rather the matter should be the other way around. Assume instead that there is a shortage of space for writing and a shortage of time for reading. This means that the text must be economical and well focused. Also make sure each word is understood as simply as possible, that each sentence is clear (easily scanned) and that it is all saying something vital and with impact on the human condition.
At some point in a researching to writing stage the summary to conclusion becomes decided, and in editing this becomes the focus. This conclusion may come before the end, and the end itself may look to further questions tackled by other researchers or writers - a what comes next. There may be future events that alter the argument. The conclusion must be consistent with all the preceding sentences.
With word processing and computer use, construction with editing and then writing is not as separated as it used to be. So it is possible that although the summary-conclusion was driving the piece, they more easily become altered along the way thanks to the fluidity of word processing. This is to be expected.
The whole aim is clarity for the reader: processing a lot of information most easily so that the reader has an overview and a resource for detail that aids further analysis and discussion.
Here is a further point: all text should be subjected to a source and redaction criticism - where is the information from and for whom was it written respectively. There are other critical analyses too of a piece as a text: tradition criticism asks where it stands in the fields of knowledge. An awareness of this by the writer on its construction as much as on its content can aid the sense of the piece as a whole.



Adrian Worsfold

Pluralist - Liberal and Thoughtful