Paragraph length in dissertations, essays

Ideal length of paragraph in academic writing

Imagine yourself reading a document of about 5,000 words without any line breaks or paragraphs, but just a continuous flow of long sentences. You would probably soon lose interest in the document and also find it difficult to understand the argument that the writer is trying to develop. This situation could be likened to an attempt to untangle a knot. It is for this reason that a document is divided into paragraphs, with a line break between them or with the first line indented or both. It is a fact that readers will respond better to shorter paragraphs and will understand the document more quickly. Please note that if paragraphs are indented, it is not usual to indent the first line following a heading or subheading.  

It is often asked how long a paragraph should be. Although not all writing experts agree on this, there is a general guideline that a paragraph should be between two or three sentences as a minimum and five or six sentences as a maximum. At no point should any paragraph consist of only one sentence. Another guideline suggests that a paragraph should be between 100 and 200 words long. Some suggest that all paragraphs in a document should be of the same length, while others would say this does not matter. Some people would argue that a short document needs short paragraphs and a long document needs long paragraphs. However, it must be remembered that all of these are guidelines, and in fact, there are no strict rules as to how long a paragraph should exactly be. 

It is advisable, however, that each paragraph in an academic text, like an MA or PhD thesis, should focus on one particular topic or idea (or sub-idea), irrespective of its length. The opening sentence of a paragraph, also called the introduction or the topic sentence, should briefly, but accurately, set the tone of the topic. This naturally leads into the next few sentences which develop this topic in greater detail. It will involve developing the argument by citing data and research in support of the argument being presented. It is important that the topic has been adequately researched and that examples are given. All of this enables the writer to convince the reader that his/her idea is a valid argument. After the topic has been fully supported and explained, a final sentence is written as a conclusion or end to the paragraph. This should be concise and give an accurate conclusion to the argument developed in the central part of the paragraph. 

We can summarise the contents of a paragraph as: (1) introduce the topic; (2) develop and support the topic and (3) write a final closing line. It is essential that the topic is maintained throughout the paragraph and that the MA or PhD student does not wander from one idea to another. Digression in academic writing is often frowned upon. This also means that the conclusion should be naturally linked to the introduction. If the writer wishes to develop a new or a different topic, then this should be in a new paragraph. 

When the document has been written, it is a good idea to read it through in order to see that each paragraph maintains one topic. Although there are no set rules for how long a paragraph should be, sometimes, it can be obvious that a paragraph is too long or too short. If it is too long, it could mean that the writer has presented multiple topics; therefore, it would be helpful to divide the paragraph into two, with each one concentrating on one topic. If a paragraph is too short, it could mean that the topic has been inadequately researched, in which case further research should be conducted enabling more text to be added to the paragraph. Furthermore, it is always wise to abide by the house rules (if there are any) as it is not unknown for some educational institutions or universities to set their own rules for paragraph length.   

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