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John DeDakis addresses AN EDITOR’S PET PEEVE

John DeDakis is the author of the Lark Chadwick mystery-suspense-thriller series, including Enemies Domestic, which will be released on July 4, 2024 (preorders now available). You can find out more about him on his website, www.johndedakis.com, or by clicking here, read his last post here, and buy his books here.

As a freelance manuscript editor, it’s my job to protect the reader from… you—and to protect you, the writer, from yourself. So, for the love of God, please keep your paragraphs short. I mean it.

Why?

[See? Even a one-word paragraph is okay.]

And on.

Like it, or not, we now live in a world of short attention spans. Yet we still have the capacity—and desire—to go deep and immerse ourselves vicariously in the lives of a writer’s imagined characters. Lately, I’ve been editing a lot of manuscripts and one of the biggest problems I’m encountering are paragraphs that go on and on and on.

Let me be clear: By advocating for shorter paragraphs, I’m not arguing for a reduction in word count per se; I’m arguing in favor of chopping your paragraphs into more bite-sized units.

None of my reasons has anything to do with writing. It’s all about the psychology of reading.

Put yourself in the head of the reader. It’s one o’clock in the morning. The book is good, but you’re tired, and it’s wayyyy past your bedtime. You turn the page, peeking ahead to see how much more reading you’ll have to do before the chapter ends.

Yikes. The next page is one big block of black ink. Time to turn off the light. But, as a writer, your goal is to keep the reader turning pages. Shorter paragraphs (coupled with good writing) will do that.

In my opinion, there are three reasons why short paragraphs lead to more page-turning:

  1. Short paragraphs add white space to the page.
  2. More white space makes the page more inviting and less daunting for the reader.
  3. Short paragraphs are a subtle way to increase your book’s pacing.

You probably already know that the rule of thumb is to start a new graf when the focus shifts. Hot-potato back-and-forth dialogue is one way to do that.

Ah. Dialogue. That leads me to another pet peeve. But I’ll save that for next time.

John DeDakis

Award-winning novelist, writing coach, and manuscript editor John DeDakis is a former editor on CNN's "The Situation Room with Wolf Blitzer." DeDakis is the author of five mystery-suspense-thriller novels. His 6th novel, ENEMIES DOMESTIC, a political thriller dealing with abortion and White Christian Nationalism, will be released July 4, 2024. Pre-ordering started June 20. DeDakis, a former White House correspondent, regularly leads writing workshops at literary centers and writers’ conferences. He is also the host of the video podcast “One-to-One” on YouTube, Facebook, and LinkedIn. Originally from La Crosse, Wisconsin, DeDakis now lives with his wife Cindy in Baltimore, Maryland. His website is at www.johndedakis.com

This Post Has 16 Comments

  1. Nicholas Chiarkas
    Nicholas Chiarkas

    Yes, yes, yes…you nailed it again, John. White space (negative space) in art and writing is a warm welcome and invitation. Bravo, my friend.

  2. Laurie Buchanan
    Laurie Buchanan

    John — I wholeheartedly agree with your point about the impact of shorter paragraphs and shorter chapters. They entice readers to keep turning the pages, especially during those late-night reading sessions. And as you said, it doesn’t mean a shorter word count; it’s about serving up the same rich literary feast in bite-sized portions that are more palatable and easy to digest. I eagerly anticipate the return of Lark Chadwick in ENEMIES DOMESTIC.

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    pmeyer2004

    Thanks for this advice and insight, John. It feels so right ( ;

  4. Carl Vonderau
    Carl Vonderau

    Great advice, John. My paragraphs have been getting shorter and shorter. My chapters too.

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    Margaret Mizushim

    Completely agree about short paragraphs and chapters. Love this advice!

  6. Sheila Lowe
    Sheila Lowe

    This makes me think about handwriting and the balance between the white space of the paper and the dark writing line (figure and ground). I wonder how many of those authors who choose to write in big chunks such as you describe also write that way. If so, it says a lot about their need to control their environment.
    BTW, I think your book cover is utterly stunning.

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    Avanti Centrae

    Hi John, couldn’t agree more. I prefer to write short chapters, too. Looking forward to your next thriller!

  8. Sherrill Joseph
    Sherrill Joseph

    Thanks for the great advice, John. I’ve noticed that I’m starting to break up my paragraphs for the reasons you mentioned. Your book cover is eye-catching!

  9. Christine DeSmet
    Christine DeSmet

    Yes, indeed. I’m always fighting against big paragraphs in my own work! Part of this is subjective, too, and depends on the topic and type of novel. I just finished Leif Enger’s much-lauded new novel, I CHEERFULLY REFUSE, and one reason for his long and perfect paragraphs here and there is that he’s leading you into a deep, dark, scary cave. A long paragraph done well can create the feeling of foreboding, fear, horror. You can feel yourself sinking toward a surprise at the end, and he delivers. A good long paragraph should feel like its own mini-story, it seems. I write in traditional mysteries, and those rarely have a long paragraph because rather than horror we’re going for a feeling of true action on the part of the reader who is really the narrator/lead character/sleuth of the mystery and in the shoes of the protagonist. James Lee Burke writes some magnificent long paragraphs in his suspense. William Kent Krueger uses long paragraphs to introduce almost every chapter in LIGHTNING STRIKE and he scatters them within, too. It’s all very purposeful. My conclusion? Long paragraphs need planning and thoughtful execution. Which is what you’re saying, John, because new writers often fall back on “essay” lessons from their past English classes and that’s not what you’re talking about when it comes to paragraphing. Sorry to go on so long, but I teach this stuff, too, and love the topic. (Smile) Your post is write on!

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    saralynrichard

    Thanks for this post. You obviously practice what you preach!

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    Colleen Winter

    Great post. I can tell by your post that you practice what you preach. You are bang on about white space and making the page more accessible for readers. As I sit down to edit tomorrow, your words will be in the back of my mind. So thank you for the reminder. I’ll look forward to what you have to say about dialogue.

  12. GP Gottlieb
    GP Gottlieb

    I hear you, but I sometimes find one-line sentences to be a little too proud of themselves, as if the truth they hold is worthy of a whole paragraph. Maybe, as in most things, there’s a happy medium?

  13. Sharon Lynn
    Sharon Lynn

    I love a short paragraph! Always have.

    Instead of a shorter attention span, think of it in terms of a 7 second filter. If you don’t capture my attention in 7 seconds, I have an entire world of other things to look at. Without the filter, our brains couldn’t survive the onslaught.

    Unlike when we were kids and watched Gilligan’s Island. We knew it was stupid, but we didn’t have anything else to watch.

  14. tracey64p
    tracey64p

    I completely agree, John. Especially when I’m reading!!
    Thanks for this insight 🙂

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