If this is the first time you set out to write a nonfiction book and you want to know how long your paragraphs should be, you might be asking yourself questions like:
- What’s the ideal paragraph size?
- Can a paragraph be 3 sentences?
- Is a 300-word paragraph too long?
So, you do the next logical thing — search Google for an answer. But then you find that many of those answers are conflicting:
- All paragraphs should have the same length, between 100 and 200 words
- Paragraphs don’t need a set length, don’t limit yourself and write to your heart’s content!
- While paragraphs can have any length, make sure you don’t mix short ones and long ones
…and so on and so forth.
The truth, of course, lies somewhere in the middle. As a matter of fact, nonfiction paragraph length doesn’t follow a set of formulas, but instead a set of guidelines.
4 Paragraph Guidelines for Nonfiction Authors
First Guideline: At a minimum, a paragraph must have an opening sentence that introduces a main idea (just one!) followed by 3-5 sentences that expand on it and then close with a concluding sentence. At their core, nonfiction paragraphs are units of knowledge and must be whole in order to facilitate the effective transfer of knowledge from author to reader.
If your ideas aren’t fully developed in each paragraph, then you’ll be creating unwanted speed bumps that will leave your readers confused, frustrated or both, which will lead to rapid attrition. Once this happens, there’s a good chance your readers will never pick up your book again because they’ll be expecting more of the same (and they’ll likely be right).
Second Guideline: A reasonable paragraph length is between 100 and 200 words. Now, this isn’t based on a formula but on the simple fact that the nonfiction genre — and problem-solving nonfiction in particular — is about ideas, and those ideas need a minimum number of words for you to be able to develop them effectively.
For example, a nonfiction paragraph that’s too short might be a telltale sign that an idea has been rushed and not fully flushed out. A paragraph that’s too long might contain multiple ideas.
Third Guideline: If there is an actual rule about paragraphs, it’s that each must only expand on a single idea. But if this idea is too complex, then you may need to break it up into several sub-ideas, each requiring its own paragraph.
The trick is to initially write your book from a stream of consciousness and not worry about paragraph length. Then go over the section you previously wrote and if you find a paragraph that’s too long to for a reader to process (say, 400 words) then analyze it. If it contains too complex an idea, you’ll need to split it into multiple sub-ideas each with its own paragraph. If it contains more than one idea, you’ll need to break it up into individual ones.
Fourth Guideline: Try to be consistent with your paragraph lengths. Does that mean that all paragraphs should be the same length as a matter of style? No, far from it.
Readers do need a semblance of consistency for the sake of being able to process information at a reasonable pace, but this process has to be organic, not forced.
What’s important in nonfiction is to be conscious of the fact that you’ll likely be introducing a large number of new ideas to your audience who (hopefully) has never heard of them before, and they’ll need the right amount of words to be able to read and digest each idea before moving on to the next one.
So, with your focus on clarity (read: quality) instead of quantity, you’ll develop a natural flow and therefore a natural paragraph length. What you don’t want are long and tedious paragraphs (too complex an idea) or short incomplete ones (confusing and frustrating to the reader) — or worse yet, a combination of the two!
If you enjoyed this article and are in the process of writing a nonfiction book, be sure to check out my free nonfiction success guide, drawn from years of experience editing books for bestselling authors (including a New York Times bestseller) and ghostwriting for CEOs and politicians. Simply click here to get instant access.
Leave me a comment below if you have any questions or a specific need that I can help you address – I operate an author services firm that specializes in helping entrepreneurs, professionals and business owners who want to publish books as a calling card for prospects, to establish their status as an expert or to just to generate additional leads for their businesses.
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Bennett R. Coles is an award-winning author of 6 books published through Harper Collins (NY) and Titan Publishing Group (UK). He is also the publisher at Promontory Press and the founder/CEO of Cascadia Author Services, a boutique full-service firm that specializes in premium author services specifically designed for busy professionals. Our end-to-end services include writer coaching, ghostwriting, editing, proofing, cover design, book layout, eBook production, printing, distribution and marketing.