Probably one of the most obvious features of a book besides the title is the text. How this text is structured depends entirely on the content. It’s pretty fair to say that in order for the text to make sense and be digestible to read, the author will need to use paragraphs, the blocks of varying size that break up and build the flow of information on the page.
Without going into the importance of a book’s opening paragraph which every author should know is paramount, I want to take a moment to explain what I have learnt about this essential feature of writing. Like most debutantes, my first writings were faltered. A common mistake I made was to write really long heavy paragraphs. I’m pretty sure I used really long winded sentences too.
When you are getting those words and thoughts out of your head and onto the page, you don’t stop to see how much clutter you are placing on the page. In fact, you probably won’t notice at all. It will only be when you reread what you’ve written that you’ll notice the ominous nature of your body of work.
A really good technique to see just how exhaustive a paragraph or sentence can be is to read it out loud. If you are finding it hard to remember where the paragraph began or you are out of breathe before the full stop (or comma – use commas to list things, add on or place a pause), then it’s time to place your cursor and hit Return.
Technically there is no unforgiving rule or regulation that dictates how long a paragraph should be. My personal preference is anywhere between 5 to 15 lines. If you’re nearing the end of an A4 sheet and you still haven’t reset with a paragraph break, you’re either really going into detail about something or lost in your train of thought. You might have the endurance to keep up but I am pretty sure the reader doesn’t.
Something I noticed over the last couple of years is the evolution of the paragraph in New Media e.g. Websites and social media. The constant stream of information we submit our senses to every day has worn away our capacity to concentrate and stay focused. You have almost certainly heard the acronym TLDR thrown about in comment sections, forums and reviews. TLDR stands for Too Long Didn’t Read and beckons for someone to provide cliff notes that highlight the essential tidbits of information hidden in a block of text.
News websites are at the forefront of breaking up information into quick and easy morsels. They might not admit to it but most people don’t read entire articles anymore. Instead, they grab the title, maybe a subtitle, a blurb or teaser text and if they are really bored the first paragraph. Pictures help too. It’s a pretty sad state of affairs for the information age where clickbait titles help dumb down society and share false information.
Let me get down off my soapbox to get back on topic: the importance of the paragraph. I am a total novice in graphic design and layouts but something a lot of InDesign masters preach about is white space. Basically you’ve got to let your work breathe. The same applies for writing.
Try and limit paragraphs to the moment or a specific description. Describing your character’s wardrobe doesn’t have to read like a passage from the Bible. Break it down, piece by piece. Change the focus point from the character to the setting or another character. What makes a good recipe? Individual ingredients, clear instructions and personal flair. Keep that in mind next time you cook up a book.