Don Bates, APR, Fellow PRSA
In the U.S., we learn from an early age that it’s best to write short and sweet. We have a well-known acronym that summarizes the requirement: KISS as in “Keep It Simple Stupid” with any number of replacements for the final “S.” One dictionary has almost 90 versions.
According to reliable sources, the acronym is a design principle encouraged by the U.S. Navy in 1960. It says systems work best when they are kept simple, so unnecessary complexity should be avoided. Kelly Johnson, lead engineer at the Lockheed “Skunk Works,” creators of the Lockheed U-2 and SR-71 Blackbird spy planes, coined the term. Although popular usage prefers “Keep it simple, stupid,” Johnson didn’t use the comma.
So, KISS is a good idea to follow when you write. Short words, short sentences, and the subject of this article, short paragraphs.
Almost without fail, PR and management writers, especially those just starting out, will at some point ask how many words or sentences should be in a paragraph. Any number is OK, but if you want to make something more inviting and readable, fewer words are better.
Newspapers have been examples since they first started to appear in the U.S. in the early 1800s, although the first of this genre was in Germany, the Relation aller Fürnemmen und gedenckwürdigen Historien (account of all distinguished and commemorable [sic] stories), printed from 1605 onwards in Strasbourg.
If you were writing for a modern newspaper, you would use an average of 25-50 words to fit the roughly 2-inch column width that is prevalent in U.S. newspapers. This length’s intent is to “air out” dense text so it’s more visually appealing and easier to read. Imagine newspapers with unrelieved 100-word paragraphs?
However, most of us are writing in other formats and for other purposes, so we need a compromise of sorts, something that will do in most circumstances.
Today’s “Daily Writing Tips” blog says, “A paragraph…should be no longer than three sentences” and “include a topic sentence, several supporting sentences, and possibly a concluding sentence.”
Ubiquitous “Grammarly” says, “Although you may have numerous valid facts or descriptions related to your paragraph’s core idea, you may lose a reader’s attention if your paragraphs are too long.” The AI-powered grammar checker adds: “Journalists, for example, know that their readers respond better to short paragraphs. News readers generally lose interest with long descriptions and even one-sentence paragraphs are considered both acceptable and impactful.”
Lastly, the unsurpassed Purdue University OWL” (Online Writing Lab) is more detailed. Here are my shortened versions of its “rules” for writing paragraphs that communicate clearly:
- Use one main idea per paragraph.
- Aim for 3-5 sentences.
- Make paragraphs proportional. Since short paragraphs do less work in short documents, use short paragraphs for short documents and longer paragraphs for longer documents.
- When you have a few short paragraphs, ask whether they can be combined as one longer paragraph, or turned into more fully developed paragraphs with a few added details.
All of these guidelines are helpful, but context is key. My recommendation: Aim for 50-100 words in most management and PR documents, and 25-35 for emails and internet websites and blogs. Form follows function.
Ultimately, you as the writer must decide what a good or “best” length is based on how the paragraph reads, feels, looks, and, most important, communicates. How it works for you and your audience. If it doesn’t communicate well, who cares what the length is? Might as well be 1,000 words. Or, better, no words at all.
Whatever your choice, keep the idea of KISS top of mind as you craft sentences, paragraphs, pages, all you write, especially since you’re applying the choice to something you mostly love that deserves the affectionate demonstration – writing.
CODA: I can’t resist adding a definition that strikes at the heart of KISS: “Good writing is clear thinking made visible.” These seven punchy, potently packed words are by Ambrose Bierce from the opening of his 1909 collection of language pet peeves, “Write It Right.” FYI: The paragraph was 80 words.
- What does KISS stand for? The Free Dictionary
- Paragraphing // Purdue Writing Lab
- The Best Piece of Writing Advice You’ll Ever Need – PRsay
- Write It Right by Ambrose Bierce – Free eBook (manybooks.net)
About the Author: Don Bates, APR, Fellow PRSA, retired this summer as a part-time graduate PR writing and management instructor at New York University. He also teaches PR and business writing worldwide. For more than 50 years, he has handled public relations for corporations, associations, and nonprofit organizations. He is founding director of the strategic public relations graduate program in The George Washington University Graduate School of Political Management, in Washington, D.C. Contact: firstname.lastname@example.org, 917-913-8940.