Knowing when and why to use paragraph breaks is something that most of us were taught at school and, if it doesn’t come to us instinctively, is frequently got wrong. However, it is a key skill to ensure your posts are easy to follow and retain your readers through till the end. So if your instincts aren’t working well, what should you do?
Traditional advice to journalists was to write stories in such as way that they carry on making sense each time you slice a sentence off the end of the story. This was suited to the pre-electronic era where stories had to fit the size of the paper, but it often wasn’t known at the time of writing exactly what the size of that space would be. Moreover, the manual manipulation of text meant that any editing other than trimming words from the end could be slow and cumbersome.
This writing style is still frequently used and still has many merits – such as by catering for both the busy reader, who just reads the first part of the story, and also the more interested reader, who reads on and gets further detail.
It isn’t that well suited to online writing, though, both because usually there isn’t the same constraint on the number of words and also because the increasing trend towards conveying messages via telling stories means you cannot structure posts in the same way. The narrative arrangement of a story is not amenable to editing away from the bottom up.
The traditional way of writing is, however, an approach that still works well within paragraphs. The first sentence of the paragraph is the main point, with the other sentences then clarifying, substantiating or expanding as needed. When you get on to a new point, it’s time for a new paragraph.
So when you’re done, there are two checks for your paragraph structure. First, the post should still make sense even if you only read the first sentence of each paragraph. Second, you should be able to in turn chop off the last sentence of any paragraph (that is more than one sentence long) and for the post still to flow.
Finally, remember that as with all rules about writing, all rules are there for the breaking on that occasional moment of genius.