I’ve done two previous posts discussing some of my decisions for my career. First was committing to indie publishing for my adult genre fiction. Second was writing shorter books. The third decision is pretty simple, though my reasons may not be obvious.
Decision #3: Use shorter paragraphs.
I like to use a lot of short paragraphs anyway, as I think it can help the reader’s eyes move more quickly down the page, helping to give the impression that the story is moving quickly. Short paragraphs are ideal for action scenes and cliffhanger chapter endings. I’ve discussed this technique in previous posts such as Write Better with Powerful Paragraphing and Paragraphing for Cliffhangers and in the Advanced Plotting essay Hanging by the Fingernails.
But of course you don’t want your work to be a string of one-sentence paragraphs. Sometimes it’s more appropriate, or just feels natural, to have a longer paragraph. This often happens with description or introspection. Adult books often use longer paragraphs, on average, than children’s books. Literary titles and fantasy may use longer paragraphs than thrillers. Shorter isn’t always “right” or better.
However, it’s worth keeping in mind that many people are reading on electronic devices today. That changes the way a book is laid out. Forget about all the work a book designer does to make the text readable. With e-books, the users set their preference on their device. The user chooses the size of font and the spacing of the words. Plus, some people are reading on phones or other small screens, so they get only a few lines per “page.”
What does that mean for a writer? Well, it means a paragraph that takes up a few lines on your manuscript might wind up taking an entire page on a small screen or where the user has set a large font size. In my personal experience, a paragraph that takes up an entire page is harder to read – it’s harder for your eyes to track back and forth from the end of one line to the beginning of the next line. This is true regardless of the size of the font (though it’s even worse with a small font and dozens of lines on the page).
I noticed this after publishing Rattled. I went over the print on demand version carefully, making sure the text looked good on the printed page. I broke a few long paragraphs into shorter ones, because what looked right on an 81/2 x 11 manuscript printout seemed unwieldy in the 5 x 8 book. I got it looking pretty.
But when I looked at the electronic version and tested different font sizes, the book suddenly seemed to have huge blocks of text. It almost seemed like I’d forgotten paragraphing existed in some places! I’ve noticed that in other authors’ books as well, and the larger blocks of text are harder to read. Not a lot, but just that little bit.
We live in an increasingly digital world, so it’s worth considering how your books will read on electronic devices. On my blog posts, I try to keep my paragraphs to no more than four or five lines in a Word document, knowing that will become more on the narrower blog post. For my books, if I see a paragraph going more than five or six lines, I look for a natural place to break it.