The Paragraph’s Evolution

by Charles Euchner on September 16, 2012

An excerpt from the recently updated edition of The Big Book of Writing, available as a comprehensive guide to writing (click right) or in sections (click images below).

Like other crafts, writing evolves with the technologies of the day. And the paragraph has always played a leading role in the change.

Before Gutenberg’s printing press, books contained endless blocks of text without breaks. Over time, that text got broken up—first with lines, then pilcrows, then hanging indents, and finally standard indents. Now, the computer, Internet, and ebook revolutions are producing new formatting techniques. The trend is clear. The more you can break up text, the better.

The process started with bullets. People had used bullets for years in formal publications. But the rise of the personal computer made bullets ubiquitous. Why? Three reasons:

  • People produce longer documents in professional settings. Bullets enabled readers to skim the documents to find pertinent points.
  • Software programs—from Electric Pencil to Word—make bullets easy to produce.
  • PowerPoint has become the primary tool for making presentations in business and government.

Bullets, alas, make us lazy. Bullets encourage us to make endless lists, rather than thinking through the logic of our ideas.

Another product of the Information Age is the use of single-spaced paragraphs with spaces between the paragraphs. Some indent these paragraphs; others don’t. This format looks odd in traditional publications like books and magazines. But it makes sense for web sites and office and school documents.

The Internet also allows for hypertext, which allows readers to jump to a whole new document with a simple click. This enables authors to hide their background information, references, and more detailed explanations. With hyperlinks, the author can give the reader choice about how much information to absorb.

Writers like Joe Posnanski add another twist. In his column for Sports Illustrated’s website, Posnanski makes asides normally put in footnotes in the middle of the text. By indenting the aside, Posnanski marks it off from the main text. But by putting it smack-dab in the middle of the text, Posnanski allows us to experience his ruminations as they would occur in a conversation. Clever.

Whatever formats we use, writers need to compose paragraphs that take readers on a single journey. Use a series of paragraphs to take a longer journey. In every paragraph, state and explore just one idea. Take the reader from one place to another. Start strong, finish strong.
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