ASK AUNTIE MJ: SHORT PARAGRAPH SYNDROME

insomniapple asked you:

Dear auntie MJ, my paragraphs are really short! I know it shouldn’t matter but I feel like I must be missing something. Does it matter if they are short? *Flails in front of laptop*

My precious insomniapple,

There is nothing particularly wrong with having a short paragraph. There is actually no rule in the English language concerning the length of paragraphs. You can have a perfectly legitimate paragraph that is only one sentence, or even one word, long. Some people write long. Some people write tight and short. But you seem to feel there is something wrong, something missing, so maybe there is. Maybe you are finding your stride. That’s fine.

A page has a cadence. Go to your shelf, to your library or bookstore, and pick up some books at random. (It would probably help to pick up some certified “classics” for this exercise. Just flip through the pages. Don’t read them. Just look at the patterns on the pages. Look at the way the words undulate down the page, like the pages are breathing in and out. You will see all kinds of forms. Now pick three books you REALLY LOVE (or at least REALLY LIKE or THINK ARE GOOD FOR SOME REASON.) From each of those books, pick a page you like. Now read the paragraphs over and over. Count the number of sentences they have. Really take a good, long, STRANGE INTENSE look at these pages. Why do they work for you? What do you like about these paragraphs? I don’t just mean the story or what’s happening. Why is this FORM speaking to you? How much detail is given? Where does the author start and break the paragraph, and why do you think he/she chose this point?

Do this exercise every once in a while at random. Just pick a page from a book and have a good look at it. Once you understand the logic behind the form, you add to your knowledge base. It’s another entry in the “things I like, writing-wise” files. We develop our style by keeping these kinds of files in our heads and processing them. We don’t even know we’re doing it, usually. When you learn to write, you often have to make a conscious effort to figure these things out.

Many people recommend typing out an entire book they love. This is a famous technique. By typing it out, you start to put the ebb and flow into your fingers, you really have to look at every word. During NaNo, you might not have time to type a whole book. But you might want to try typing a page or two, just as a warm up. It requires no particular thought. You just type it and let things happen naturally.

I think you’ll find that the more you start looking at the paragraphs in this way, things will start to sort themselves out in your mind. But for now, don’t worry. Just keep going and try the exercises if you can.


With devotion,
Auntie MJ