The Art of the Paragraph

image of a paragraph symbol

Anyone can write a paragraph, but not everyone knows how to write one that other people want to read.

You’ve seen it:

You open a book, and the whole page is one long block of text.

Each sentence in the paragraph makes exactly the same point, said in a slightly different way, and you wonder why they didn’t just say it once and be done with it.

Every paragraph is the same length (five lines, maybe?), whether it makes sense or not, and it gives the piece a monotonous rhythm.

The paragraph makes a point without telling you why that point is important, and you can’t help thinking, “So what?”

Like a little island, the paragraph doesn’t connect to any ideas that came before it or after it, and it seems vaguely out of place.

We all hate paragraphs that make these mistakes. Those of us who are in the National Society of Writing Snobs (raise your hand, if you’re a member) even get a weird sort of thrill from pointing them out.

Yet, somehow, they keep showing up.

Not just in the work of third graders, but in the writing of people who call themselves professionals, including yours truly.

It’s like Bill Murray and Richard Dreyfuss in the movie What about Bob? — every time you think they’re gone, you open the door, and there they are again, grinning and happy to see you.

The question is: what are you going to do about it?

It’s okay to write a bad paragraph, but publishing one will only endanger your bond with your readers. Before showing your writing to anyone, you should always go back through and check your paragraphs to make sure they are in tip-top shape.

Here are some questions to guide you:

1. Does it pass the Guy Kawasaki test?

You know how we all have blogging mentors who we look up to?

Well, Guy Kawasaki is one of mine. Three years ago, he wrote a post passing on some of his blogging wisdom, and one of his pieces of advice stuck with me:

. . . Imagine that there’s a little man sitting on your shoulder reading what you’re writing. Every time you write an entry, he says, “So what? Who gives a shiitake?” If you can’t answer the little man, then you don’t have a good blog/product.

It’s true. Every time you write a paragraph, stop for a moment and see if it passes the “Who gives a shiitake?” test. If you don’t have a good answer, then delete your paragraph and start over.

2. Is it a two-headed baby?

Babies are adorable. Two-headed babies, on the other hand, are something you would see on the cover of National Enquirer. It’s just . . . wrong.

Paragraphs work the same way.

A good paragraph has one head. In other words, it has one point, one idea, and all of its sentences work together to support that one idea. Do it right, and it’s adorable in its simplicity.

If you try to stuff more than one idea into a paragraph, however, you’ll transform it into a monster. Grown men will shy away from it. Small children will burst into tears. English teachers will clutch their chests and fall over dead.

Okay, maybe not. But you will confuse readers, and that’s serious business. Don’t do it.

3. Is there an echo in here?

Some writers have what I call an “Echo Problem.”

They start with an idea, and then every sentence in the paragraph echoes the same idea, although in a slightly different way. For example:

I hate green beans. Every time I think of them, I feel nauseous. Green beans are the absolute worst. If you put any green beans on my plate, I won’t eat them.

This paragraph only has one idea: I hate green beans. Every sentence in the paragraph just echos the same idea. They’re unnecessary.

When you write a paragraph like this, it feels like you’re expounding on your original point. But you’re not. All you’re really doing is adding fluff and boring the reader.

A good rule of thumb is to read every sentence in your paragraph and ask yourself, “Could I remove any of these sentences and retain the same meaning?” If you can, then by all means, get rid of them. It’ll make your writing tighter.

4. Are you writing in a monotone?

Ever listened to a speech, and the speaker used exactly the same vocal inflection from beginning to end?

It’s annoying, and it’s not just because humans are predisposed toward rhythmic language. When we’re listening, we also depend on the speaker to use vocal inflections to tell us what’s important. For instance, if they’re speaking quickly and then suddenly start drawing out their words, we know to pay attention. The change in inflection means something important is happening.

Makes sense, right? But did you know it’s also possible for your writing to be a monotone?

Paragraphs are the vocal inflections of the written word. Good writers vary the length of their paragraphs to show the reader what’s important. Some paragraphs will be 3-5 sentences, but every once in a while, they’ll throw in a one-sentence paragraph in order to emphasize a particular point. It stands out, and it tells the reader to pay attention.

Try it for yourself.

5. Are there on-ramps and off-ramps?

So far, we’ve talked about the paragraph (singular), but it’s time we dedicate some time to paragraphs (plural).

Lots of beginning writers treat paragraphs like little islands unto themselves, floating in the great ocean of ideas without any connection to anyone or anything. It’s jarring. Sometimes you can see how the paragraphs relate to one another, but sometimes you’re also left scratching your head.

It’s far better to look at paragraphs as if they are towns along a highway. Yes, they are separate, but they also have on-ramps and off-ramps that make it easy for people to get back on the highway and get to where they’re going. Similarly, good paragraphs use connector words and grammar to help the reader move on to the next idea.

We could do a whole post on this topic (and probably will, in the future), but the best rule of thumb is to look at each of your paragraphs and see if it’s possible to understand them without reading any of the others. If it is, think about adding some connecting on-ramps and off-ramps. It’ll make your writing more readable.

Are these rules that you must follow?

No, they’re just guidelines.

The point is to consciously think about your paragraphs and the way they affect your readers. Next to sexy topics like headlines, link building, and SEO, it’s easy to forget about them.

But don’t. Like most things, it’s the little nuances of your writing that add up to create a profound impact on the reader. Your paragraphs are one of those nuances, and if you’re serious about your writing, it’s important to learn how to use them.

About the Author: Jon Morrow is Associate Editor of Copyblogger and Cofounder of Partnering Profits. Get more from Jon on twitter.

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Reader Comments (99)

  1. says

    I agree with #3, but if you choose to break this guideline, break it with class. The following 2 paragraphs do this better than anything I’ve ever seen:

    I played on and as I played I forgot the people around me. I forgot the hour, the place, the breathless listeners. The little world I lived in seemed to fade – seemed to grow dim – unreal. Only the music was real. Only the music and the visions it brought on – visions as beautiful and enchanting as the windblown clouds and shimmering moonlight that had inspired this great composer.

    It seemed as if the master musician himself were speaking to me – speaking through the medium of music – not in words but chords. Not in sentences, but in exquisite melodies.

  2. says

    Some awesome paragraph tips there! There are so many poor writers on the web today, it’s actually sad.

    I love the two-headed baby (and sometimes more) analogy. It’s not hard to keep ideas one paragraph at a time but it’s so often violated.

  3. says

    Thank you, Jon and Copyblogger, for helping us keep the bar high on good writing. Social media makes us all writers, and the need to communicate more information, and do it better, demands that we keep the standards high.

    I wonder if tweeting and texting is eroding our ability to compose good paragraphs? Perhaps people are getting into the habit of whittling ideas down to 140 characters.

  4. says

    (Holding up my right hand) I swear to uphold the law of the shiitake test…

    Excellent post Jon. I know that I am guily of over-embellishing a few paragraphs here and there, especially in sales letters and article writing. This is a nice wake-up call that I need to really tighten things up to maintain eyeballs to the end of the piece. Thanks again.

  5. says

    I love crafting the rhythm of my paragraphs no matter what I write, but this is especially true when it comes to fiction. Paragraphs can be powerful, even if only a single word, and caring for their individual strength gives muscle to the whole.

    There were two things which together shaped my approach to the paragraph.

    The first happened before I ever started writing. I bought Stephen King’s “On Writing” for my wife and then read it when she wasn’t looking. King talked about the paragraph as the author’s unique beat or signature of rhythm. This was a 100 watts above my head, as up until that moment I thought there was a right and a wrong way to structure paragraph. Silly I know.

    The second was when I began to blog and found that the words I was writing were being read by an active audience. I could craft stronger points with deeper impact simply by the way I structured the paragraphs.

    I love the analogy of paragraphs as towns along the highway and couldn’t agree ore. I pay attention to the on-ramps and off-ramps and make sure that there are no monotonous echoing two-headed babies repelling my readers.

  6. Sonia Simone says

    @Paul, I think that’s a good point. We’ve trained ourselves away from writing paragraphs that connect to one another, in favor of compressed episodic sentences.

  7. says

    Okay this is exciting! I just secured one more reader for my blog, the little man on my shoulder.

    I always proofread for grammatical errors and flow. But I’ve never asked the questions the little guy inquires about. Thanks for the help :)

  8. says

    Great, and perfect timing. Next weeks marketing email will be much better constructed.

    With regards to point 3. I think repetition, as long as it is used well, can help to enhance paragraphs. It can add emphasis to an aspect of the copy and change the flow of the piece by foccusing on one element, before moving on.


  9. says

    Spot on! I’ve read some really great content blogs that are just one big paragraph or two. The great content gets lost, and I rarely return. The style of the article can really help engage readers and keep them interested (assuming your content is interesting to begin with).

    Rob – LexiConn

  10. Sonia Simone says

    @Clair, I’m a fan of repetition too. But I also know what Jon means, those paragraphs that repeat the same idea for 4 or 5 sentences, at which point I just start to skim. Not sure how to articulate the difference, though . . .

  11. says

    @Sean: I’m a huge fan of On Writing too. In my opinion, it’s probably the most genuinely useful book about writing ever written. I’ve read it at least 10 times.

    @Clair: Yeah, you’re right. All of these rules can be broken if you do it to have an intentional effect on the reader. Repetition is one of my faves too.

  12. says

    Brilliant. I like how the paragraphs in this article start with few and short sentences, then build into longer, denser structures as the article proceeds.

  13. says

    @Dave: That’s intentional. A long time ago, copywriters discovered that a short, one sentence opening paragraph boosts readership. Great technique for blogging too.

  14. says

    @Clair, Jon, Sonia – I deleted part of my comment on repetition because I didn’t want to seemingly contradict the author.

    My experience with breaking rules is that it helps to master the rule before you try to break it.

  15. says

    @Sonia “Not sure how to articulate the difference, though . . ”

    Sonia, in your best robot voice, read Jon’s example paragraph, then the one I provided… You will HEAR the difference, and HEAR what Jon means. 😉

    Seriously, try it. At the least, it will make you laugh (Just thinking of you doing so is making me).

  16. says

    Great post Jonathan! Thank you. I’d add one additional point.

    Use the last sentence in the paragraph to propel the reader to the next paragraph, the way I just did.

    Have a blessed day.

  17. says

    Fun and informative read, thank you very much.

    As an aspiring writer I enjoy a good post focusing on a nuance of style. As bloggers, aren’t we all trying to improve how we convey information?

    Much of the world will be blogging over the coming years, as the benefits of having a virtual soapbox that we own far put weighs the cost.

  18. says

    Hey Jonathan,

    Less is more. If you provide only the essentials, then the impact is greater. Add more stuff to it, and the impact (and value) is diminished.

    A small bowl of the most delicious noodles will be amazing. But throw in a bunch of mediocre ingredients to make the bowl of food larger (thinking that bigger is better), and the entire meal becomes less tasty and satisfying.

    Listen to that little man on your shoulder. Make each element count. Don’t have two good sentences – turn them into a single great one.

    Make sure people give a darn about every last element.

    Great reminder on making sure to maximize impact with minimum parts – don’t make it longer or more complicated than needed,

  19. says

    In one paragraph it should only have one idea or one point. Other than that just some extra material to support the idea. That why a paragraph should be simple and short. It is better to have lot paragraph compare to long one.

    Yes, I notice in some book, especially motivational book.. they try to convey one point with so many example. The worst of it, in one chapter there is one point that chapter have about 20-30 pages that repeatly try to make reader understand what the point, but actually I understand the point since the first example. So “what the point you give another example?” That kind of question what writer need to ask themselves like you say.

    I love this post, and than you for that. You talking about one point which is write better paragraph, but withing the point there are other points, that what the book writer for above story should make, it is okay to write about one point again and again.. but make sure it asnwer “what the point” question. Thank you learn a lot from it.

  20. says

    This is a great post, but I disagree with your example in #3. Simply saying “I hate green beans,” isn’t enough. Describing the way you hate them – that it makes you feel nauseous and that you’ll go on strike and not eat them – is a great way to demonstrate to the reader exactly what that hate entails.

    Sometimes “fluff” is necessary. Color and advance. In other words, describe things in a way that truly paints the picture for your reader then advance the point of your post. Rinse and repeat.

  21. says

    I completely agree with you on most of your points here. They all come down to something I talk about a lot on my blog, which is a need for white space.

    While in a book a long paragraph is welcome (think Easton Ellis, think Rushdie), on the web… not the case.

    You have to stagger.

    Because your audience is scanning (honesty moment: I even scanned this article… it happens to the best of us on here!)

    And in this day and age of RSS, mobile, and netbooks… those paragraphs should be shrinking even further.

    So you have to design with scanners in mind:

    Thanks for the great post!


  22. Sonia Simone says

    @Nathania, I’m a big believer in color as well. In showing, not just telling. But I’d probably go with a single punchy sentence, like “If you put green beans on my plate I’m going on strike.” Or telling a really funny story that demonstrates your utter loathing of green beans would be great too.

    I agree with you 100% that sometimes you want to take your time to show the reader with color and image what you’re talking about. “Color and advance” is a nice distinction. Obviously you don’t want to try and sell a car with the sentence This is a good car just because you fear repeating yourself. :)

    @izzat aziz, your example sounds a little like a writer trying to take a good blog post or article and pad it out into a book!

  23. says

    I agree with your 2-headed baby comment and extend it to the entire piece of work. The analogy I use when I’m working with writers (I do a lot of editing) is the snake – after you’ve finished your piece, are the head, the body and the tail all from the same snake, or does your article look like Medusa?

  24. says

    As an art director I’ve always been comfortable writing a headline but just don’t ask me to string several sentences together coherently.

    I had another point to make in this comment buy the guy on my shoulder told me to step back from the computer before someone gets hurt.

  25. says

    Coincidentally, the little man on my should and I were just having a conversation about this subject. Especially with “eye breaks” that help the reader understand, digest and mentally say “okay”.

  26. says

    Good stuff. I realized recently that I tend to get caught up in #3, and no reread things regularly looking for things that can be removed or simplified. It’s an easy routine to fall into.
    Thanks for the tips.

  27. says

    Mr. Copyblogger,
    I loved this article! The Guy Kawasaki test, the little man on my shoulder saying “who gives a shittake!” hit me in the gut and made me laugh! That is so TRUE and a perfect way to take another look at your post…and your blog!

    Thank you for providing such helpful and insightful tips…I especially love your magnetic headlines btw…maybe with your help my blog might actually get read at some point in the next 10 years!

  28. says

    Great article, but I couldn’t help notice this:

    Your point #3 example:

    I hate green beans. Every time I think of them, I feel nauseous. Green beans are the absolute worst. If you put any green beans on my plate, I won’t eat them.

    Two paragraphs earlier:

    If you try to stuff more than one idea into a paragraph, however, you’ll transform it into a monster. Grown men will shy away from it. Small children will burst into tears. English teachers will clutch their chests and fall over dead.

    Just proves how easily the Echo Problem can creep into work! On the other hand, I agree with earlier commenters that entertaining or vivid repetition (like in your monster example) isn’t really a bad thing and can help illustrate your point better than dry, flavorless copy.

  29. says

    Justify the thoughts in the echo paragraph; make it poetry. But, when it is dumb, I suspect the writer is being paid by the word…and VERY LITTLE because even the publisher doesn’t plan to read it.

  30. says

    @Beau: You caught me! Believe it or not, I thought about removing those examples and couldn’t bring myself to do it. But yes, I agree with you. Repetition can add flavor, if used correctly.

  31. Sonia Simone says

    @Beah, ha, interesting! For me I wouldn’t even consider clipping out the “grown men will shy away from it” examples.

    Maybe the rule should be that if your repetition is boring, take it out. :) The echo problem, for me, is folks who are just nattering on and on and on and on without adding value.

  32. says

    Great article! I shared this with my online educational colleagues because it’s right to the point and gives some great metaphors that can speak to our students. Good paragraph organization can make or break writing, and it’s hard to explain that to high schoolers and college students, so thanks for giving us more tools for teaching!

  33. Shawn says

    Very good article. I’m in the process of editing a piece I’d written nearly three years ago, and these tips will go a long way to making my writing stronger.

    Reading this article made me wonder if Malcolm Gladwell ever heard the truth about short sentences when he wrote The Tipping Point. :)

  34. says

    Great post! That is some great advice. Sometimes you really need to take a look back at what you write and ask yourself “Who gives a shitake?” That will definitely get you to write better.

  35. says

    In college, there was a guy named Eric in my psych class who just LOOOVED to hear himself talk.
    One day, the professor finally interrupted him: “Eric, Eric. We all like a little bit of Eric. We like a sentence of Eric. But a paragraph of Eric is something nobody wants. Thank you.”

    Eric obliged by making every future comment a one-sentence paragraph.

    I don’t think he had a shiitake guy.

  36. says

    This is the first article on the web that I’ve read top to bottom without skimming. Seems like a worthy endorsement of your writing suggestions.

    Thanks for the great article.

  37. says

    A remarkable article I think. I especially was drawn to the idea of on ramps and off ramps. While each ‘graph has its own point it is imperative they be well linked to each other.

    Thanks for the thoughts!

  38. says

    In the green bean illustration, I’d recommend making the declarative, “I hate green beans” and then telling why you hate green beans. Is it the texture, the size? Is it the memories they evoke when confronted with them on the dinner plate? In the why is the interest. Everyone can hate green beans but most want to know why you do.

  39. Chris says

    Speed readers learn to look at the first and last sentence of a paragraph first. If it’s sales copy they are really moving: scanning pages rather than paragraphs.

    They won’t read the middle unless you get them interested enough to slow down.

    Since screens are much harder to read than paper, the likelihood of scanning increases. That’s one reason
    long paragraphs work better in books than in blogs.

  40. says

    @Chris: That’s an interesting point about the relationship between scanning and the reading surface. I’d never thought about it that way, but I would guess you’re right.

  41. Sonia Simone says

    @Laura, I’m laughing about Eric.

    @Dana, that’s a good point–when you’re writing your first draft, getting your ideas down, don’t worry about any of this. Otherwise you’ll fiddle with posts all day and never finish any of them. This is more of a clean-up exercise before you post/publish.

  42. says

    This is a nice post on paragraphs – The information is insightful.

    In most cases, I try to keep my paragraphs between 3 and 4 sentences. Very rare my paragraphs are long.

  43. says

    While I agree with all the points you make. It is sometimes very difficult for me. I suffer from dyslexia. Writing and reading is a battle for me. Why then did I get into blogging? well because I enjoy it, and have knowledge to share.

    I must admit tho that blogging has improved my skills. I am starting to read and write better. My language skills have improve, no much by some standards, but for me it is a great improvement.

    It is a continues struggle, but I keep up with it because I must.

  44. says

    Thank you for the great tips Jon. I call it flow; no jarring, when I move from paragraph to paragraph without feeling ‘out of it.

    It is sad, as Gabe said, to find bloggers with such mistakes. There have been times when I asked myself, “What ever happened to that thought?”

    @ Clair and Sonia. I think the first repetition, the good one, is DELIBERATE, a writer’s way of expressing themselves artistically or to emphasize a point.

    The second one that Jon talks about here is like the writer has no points to offer and keep bloating the page with different ways of saying the same thing, over and over again.

    It’s tiring and the reader feels cheated; reading to the end of the page and getting no more out of it than they did from the first paragraph, if there is any…

  45. says

    Great points Jon. Kind of off topic but I recall sucking horribly in English. Like I’d be great with grammar and some of what I wrote, but I always had like a C or a D in the class.

    Then I grew up to write for a living. Anyone else with that situation? It’s quite amusing actually!

  46. says

    You’ve started this topic with a punch and continued it till the end. It’s an interesting and informative article. This blog truly epitomize creativity and wit.

  47. Janus says


    Really liked this.

    In my job, I often send emails globally to readers that are not native English speakers. I’ve learned that the more words you put in, the more chance of being misunderstood.

    It didn’t come naturally in the beginning, but once you get into the habit taking out redundancy, you’d be surprised at home much you can actually cut.

    Like anything, it takes practice.

    Thanks for the post.


  48. says

    Your analogies create a visual that we can relate to. That is some of the reason that I find this post so great and valuable. #3, the repeating is tough not to do but I believe Sonia said it above that so long as it is not boring then it is ok. I might add that taking it a step further that if it makes the point stronger then it is needed.

    Guy always leaves us with something that we have to share as you did here. Having the little man asking you who willg give a shiitake is a fun but powerful way to take a step back and see if the post is helpful or just fingers hitting the keyboard to get something up on the screen.

    Taking the “Eric” story that was a face to face and bringing it to the screen, we can learn from that as do we want to be the rambler that the minute that we see the post we go into the ole eye roll as we know it will take a while.

    Great stuff!

  49. says

    I just started blogging. After I read your post, I went back to my own posts to see how I could make improvements for future. That’s why I love this blog … it challenges me to be a better writer. Thanks!

  50. says

    I love getting an English lesson while reading my RSS feeds. What a fun, creative way to describe the life mission of a paragraph. I am certainly not doing that every single time, the intent is good but the deliver sometimes escapes me. Alas, now I shall change that. Thank you!

  51. says

    I’m always tempted to consider writing more of an art, yet the salesman in me always tells that guy to shut up…that it’s obviously a science…that things can be broken down into work flow that produces a predictable, effective result with readers. I think we’re both right :)

  52. says

    Agree with you!
    I think one should not write longer boring paragraphs, instead they must be splitted up in few lines because that keeps stuff clean and easy to read :)

  53. Colin says

    You wrote:

    I hate green beans. Every time I think of them, I feel nauseous. Green beans are the absolute worst. If you put any green beans on my plate, I won’t eat them.

    This paragraph only has one idea: I hate green beans. Every sentence in the paragraph just echos [sic] the same idea. They’re unnecessary.

    When you write a paragraph like this, it feels like you’re expounding on your original point. But you’re not. All you’re really doing is adding fluff and boring the reader.


    Frankly you’re talking nonsense here. The third sentence of the four is probably superfluous and could usefully be deleted, but the others can stand. Contrary to what you say, the second and fourth sentences DO expand the idea. The paragraph doesn’t “only have one idea”, it has several: (a) I dislike green beans; (b) not only do I dislike them, I dislike them so extremely that they make me feel sick; (c) I won’t eat green beans even if you put them in front of me (so there!).

    You can economise something down to a statement so bland, boring and uninformative, it conveys no emotion at all. Your suggested “I hate green beans” is so bare and stripped of content, it might look silly on its own. The fluff, as you call it, serves a purpose.

  54. says

    Too much info. I need a bite sized version.

    Think Seth Godin. One idea against a genre. This article could last a year.

    Thanks for great stuff.

  55. says

    When I started teaching my students about paragraphs I realized how much my own paragraphs needed to improve! The book Everyday Editing is for teachers of younger students but it has helped me tremendously in overcoming bad habits I formed years ago.

  56. says

    WOW-this is so simple and yet, I really needed this tutorial and mental update. The blog, man, is like a fine wine. It just keeps gettiing better with time-and, more expensive? :)

  57. says

    Excellent (as usual), very helpful, and hilarious, especially about the two-headed baby and the green beans. You are so funny!

  58. says

    Guy is the man. I think I would benefit greatly from a miniature Guy who could sit on my shoulder and, at just the right momet, ask, “Who gives a Shiitake?”

    While rules were made to be broken, I never want to come across as they guy who rambles on.

  59. says

    Such an interesting read…maybe that’s due to the paragraphs :)
    I agree that there has to be some rules but at the same time they can be broken as long as it doesn’t affect the piece.
    You don’t realise how you write until you read posts like these. Thanks!

  60. says

    Timely reminders like that are important for writers and content creators as well. All of us need to remember that poor structure is really a reflection of poor quality of thought – when you’re not thinking enough about what you are creating, it comes out a garbled mess.

    Great post!

  61. Sue says

    Good tips and reminders, some of these from back in composition class. Especially one idea per sentence and one idea per paragraph.

    I am just starting a blog and while trying to keep to all these rules may slow me down a bit, it will also keep me from rambling on.


  62. says

    I will never look at my paragraphs again in the same light.

    A truly entertaining and informative post as I’ve read books that each paragraph does seem to be a chapter within itself. Almost as if the author wrote them separately and then put them together.

    Thank for for sharing these very important tips on making our writing better.

  63. says

    How am I only finding this now?

    I love the Guy Kawasaki test – it’s true, so much of what people write would never pass the man-on-the-shoulder test.

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