Dwindling Paragraphs

Image by Manchester Monkey
Image by Manchester Monkey

Today’s digital web threatens the very existence of expository style. Consider the plight of the traditional paragraph.

What makes a good paragraph? The expression of a complete idea.

Though writing experts acknowledge that new media cause the ever diminishing paragraph, they still recommended writers communicate one idea per block of sentences.

However, the destruction of parenthetical form continues, pushed forward by the increasing presence of smaller mobile screens and blogs.

We increasingly see single sentence paragraphs. That will not change with continuing media evolution.

A paragraph in the traditional sense — one thought out idea — doesn’t stand a chance online anymore. I’m not talking about a blogger’s cheeky three sentence piece of wit. I’m talking about real paragraphs, full bodied pieces of thought from the likes of Steinbeck. Even Hemingway’s then short and now long paragraphs offer a testimony to thought in paragraph form.

Today, full bodied thoughts have no place in our media.

Instead we move line to line, dancing through a linear thought splayed out over white space.

If the paragraph in it’s traditional sense is dead, then what will happen when we use voice and video as our primary vehicles for exchanging ideas?

What do you think?

28 Replies to “Dwindling Paragraphs”

  1. I did a last pass at my Monday post this morning — what were the only edits I had left: breaking up 3 paragraphs into smaller chunks.

    I agree with everything you said — but there really is no going back at this point. Short attention spans, smaller viewing platforms… I think all writers will have to adapt eventually, not just bloggers.

  2. As a blogger with an appreciation of Steinbeck and the like, I still cannot afford for my paragraphs to become bigger than a sandwich cookie. Reading has changed, and white space is that cold glass of milk my cookie paragraphs need to be read.

  3. Your father might plotz. You taught me as an infant blogger to go dense, then go home. The obvious issue is that everyone reads on the phone..so fit on the phone.

    1. Exactly. We no longer have the luxury of paper to read off of… But newspapers were doing the same thing decades before blogs obliterated the remaining vestiges of paragraphs. Perhaps my father would clap.

  4. We are a nation of skimmers, and the move to mobile only hastens the move to communicating only in small, snackable bits of image and text. Less is more, now more than ever.

    Those who can marry visuals to text compellingly and on strategy will win.

    1. Makes all of those advertising writers more valuable than ever before. Say it quickly, say it well, say it with meaning!

  5. We are a nation of skimmers, and the move to mobile only hastens the move to communicating in small, snackable bits of image and text. Less is more, now more than ever.

    Those who can marry visuals to text compellingly and on strategy will win.

  6. I have to confess that conversations like these always lead to a worry about critical thinking abilities. Does that make me sound stodgy? I now feel like one of my professors who raged against e-readers…

      1. I suppose so. Maybe I’m just wondering how we’re going to teach writing to the next generation. Will we teach them both ways of writing? What about analysis? That will change, too, as the writing form evolves. It seems like people need to know the first (paragraphs) before focusing on the second (lines) and to understand when one method supports or undercuts the writing. Of course, I could be worrying about nothing, but, still, I worry.

  7. Is this not the same sort of complaint we got from Socrates about how writing will undermine the traditional oral tradition. And then the complaint about how cheap, printed books will make the classic works diminish and be forgotten. And so forth?

    Give the 18th-century edition of The Tatler a read — they’re loooong but wonderful paragraphs of sublimely complex prose meant for popular consumption. Shall we return to those?

    People are reading more than ever (http://www.mcsweeneys.net/articles/young-people-are-reading-more-than-you), Cassandras of the new media notwithstanding. That the young do things differently and in ways that disturb their elders is nothing new — and that the elders are disturbed is also to be expected.

    1. I still like Dostoyevsky with his long heavy paragraphs of deep existential thought.

      But I’m not disturbed, I am observing… And conforming. It’s a fascinating time to be a writer. What’s new won’t be in five years. In fact, it will be out of date.

      1. In this post you use words such as “destroy”, “threaten”, “diminish”, etc. These are words of danger and risk, not mere observation. You are either disturbed at this trend, or at least using language to strongly imply you are disturbed; or perhaps you are just a bad writer. Which of these is the case only you can know for sure.

        1. Well, actually I took a moody position to provoke comments, just like yours. I think the position is apropo since most people struggle with change. Thanks for your comments, “Jack Factorum.” Have a nice day.

  8. As a journalist, I was taught to include no more than one or two sentences in a paragraph. That works online — probably isn’t going to translate to a longer work, such as a book.

    1. Though I do think we see shorter and shorter chapters in books. Perhaps this is a function of electronic readers, too. Hmm.

  9. As a creative copywriter for the past 4 decades it has become evident that it is critical to establish a ‘voice’ for a brand whether in the private or public sectors. Voice gives personality, tone, clarity and attitude and value to content whether on the web, in print or in person. Trouble is… you can’t create a distinctive, memorable voice using bullets, single sentence paragraphs or one word thoughts. Words are like early radio…they’re open to interpretation, inspiration, stimulation and make the reader use his/her imagination. The result: strategic wordsare creating perception and reader retention. Let’s not treat them sparingly in expressing our ideas, concepts and opinions. They count. Too bad our new social medias and time-crunch approach to smartphone communicating

    has now been limited 145 characters by Twitter. They don’t even deal with words… to them it’s become tweets. I’m glad I didn’t have that irresponsible limitation in writing this. I love the freedom that parawriting gives…it’s like white space to a graphic designer. In the end, it should be about delivering a compelling message.

    1. Thanks for sharing your experience here, Stephen. I find I have no choice but to conform if I want to get paid. And then I can go with feet dragging or I can simply accept and go.

  10. Interesting because I still write “meaty” paragraphs in my blog posts and emails. I also still spell out text messages, and really hate condensing tweets. Basically, I was taught how to convey ideas with words, and I do not like taking shortcuts!

    Having said that, as a consumer, I definitely find myself scanning blog posts for the highlights. I’ve changed my own email and blogging style to make use of formatting and font color to better identify the highlights. If folks are going to skim my thoughts, I’d like them to at least “take away” the message I intended to deliver!

    I am adding more video, but I still think most consumers might click on a blog post video…but they just let it be background noise while they skim the blog post. Then they close the tab. All the more reason to keep the video to 2 minutes or less…and I’m not good at enforcing that limitation. Just have so much good stuff that I’m excited to say!

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