The Shape of Writing

Take a look at the image at the top of this post.  There are three columns, and each column has a set of paragraphs.  The size and shapes of the paragraphs a different from one column to the next.  Before you continue reading this article, think about one or two contexts for each paragraph in which you might see a set of paragraphs like that.

Here’s what I have in mind (though these aren’t the ‘right’ answers and you may be able to come up with some great alternatives):

  • The first column has large paragraphs with many lines.  I might expect this to be an academic or scientific text, like a report or an essay.  It might also be very a descriptive narrative.
  • The second column has very short paragraphs that are only one, two, or three lines long.  I’d expect each paragraph to only contain a sentence or two (and they wouldn’t be very complex).  This might work well as a piece of written dialogue.
  • The third column has a mix of long paragraphs and short paragraphs.  This would work for a wide variety of situations like a set of instructions, a narrative that’s a bit more active, or a stream-of-consciousness type of text.


Again, there could be more ‘right’ answers.  But there could be ‘wrong’ answers as well (not as hard and fast rules, but as good practice, at least).  For example, an essay should not contain several shorter paragraphs like the middle column; related sentences should be bound together into a single paragraph to reinforce the idea that they work together to postulate or defend.  On the other hand, a more casual piece of writing probably shouldn’t contain only larger paragraphs like the left column, since reading those large blocks can become tedious to the reader.

In many cases, I’d prefer that my students show a variation in paragraph length (like the third column).  Larger paragraphs help with the flow, while the shorter paragraphs might punctuate the text with sentences that need to stand out among the rest.  Having this variation often makes the text more engaging to read.

When your students finish a piece of writing (or at least a draft of one), have them take a look at the length of their paragraphs, or of the shape that all the paragraphs on a single page make.  Is there a lot of white space on the page?  Is there hardly and white space at all?  Is there variation in the paragraph sizes, or are they relatively uniform?  Again, keep in mind that the purpose and style of the text is important.  If the size of the paragraphs and the shape of the page don’t match the purpose and intended style of the writing, the next draft might need some paragraphs broken up, or some combined.

To illustrate this better, try making a copy of a page.  Use a black marker to cover all of the text on that copy, and maybe even fill in the thin gaps between lines.  Make sure to leave open the white space between paragraphs.  How large do the paragraphs seem now, and how much variation is there?

For students that do better with auditory learning than with visual, have them read aloud the text (not in class necessarily, except to model this), or have a friend or family member read it aloud to the student.  The reader should give short pauses between sentences, and long pauses between paragraphs (for the sake of this exercise, perhaps exaggerate the pauses between paragraphs a bit).  How easy is it for the listener to keep their attention throughout?  How well can the listener follow along with the key points and the themes?  If there is difficulty in either of these regards, the length of the paragraphs might need adjusting.

Finally, if your students need a bit more convincing, try to find some other pieces of writing that the students might want to emulate, something that meets a similar purpose (is it informational, argumentative, narrative, etc.).  Take a look at the shape of the text from those works, then try to match that style for the next draft.

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