The end of a paragraph is the longest pause in writing. Place pauses strategically.
As we've been saying, a paragraph contains a single complex idea, constructed of simple ideas expressed in sentences. As writer, you determine the complexity of the idea expressed in the paragraph, and you determine when you have said enough to express the idea adequately.
Generally, you'll find yourself constantly asking:
- Have I said enough?
- Have I said too much?
Somewhere between enough and too much is the appropriate place to break for a new paragraph. Note though, and as always, context is everything. When writing online content, such as this course, we err on the side of breaking too often. We do this because readers have an easier time with smaller paragraphs on screens -- at least that's what "learning designers" say. In books, we might not break paragraphs so often, as longer paragraphs still present well on a printed page. However, in a venue printed in columns, such as a magazine or newspaper, we again break paragraphs sooner than later.
Obviously, this is a subtle point, so let's look at a couple of examples.
First, here is a passage from philosopher G. E. Moore's "Some Main Problems of Philosophy", from the first few pages of "What is Philosophy?" Moore's style is somewhat halting, you'll see, and he tends to pack a lot into a paragraph. As you read this, consider where we might break the paragraphs into more manageable chunks.
I am going, then, first of all to try to give a description of the whole range of philosophy. But this is not at all an easy thing to do. It is not easy, because, when you come to look into the matter, you find that philosophers have in fact discussed an immense variety of different sorts of questions; and it is very difficult to give any general description, which will embrace all of these questions, and also very difficult to arrange them properly in relation to one another. I cannot hope really to do more than to indicate roughly the main sorts of questions with which philosophers are concerned, and to point out some of the most important connections between these questions. I will begin by describing those questions which seem to me to be the most important and the most generally interesting, and will then go on to those which are subordinate.
That's a bit of a mouthful, but check this out:
To begin with, then, it seems to me that the most important and interesting thing which philosophers have tried to do is no less than this; namely: To give a general description of the whole of the Universe, mentioning all the most important kinds of things which we know to be in it, considering how far it is likely that there are in it important kinds of things we do not absolutely know to be in it, and also considering the most important ways in which these various kinds of things are related to one another. I will call all this, for short, "Giving a general description of the whole Universe," and hence will say that the first and most important problem of philosophy is: To give a general description of the whole Universe. Many philosophers (though by no means all) have, I think, certainly tried to give such a description: and the very different descriptions which different philosophers have given are, I think, among the most important differences between them. And the problem is, it seems to me, plainly one which is peculiar to philosophy. There is no other science which tries to say: Such and such kinds of things are the only kinds of things that there are in the Universe, or which we know to be in it. And I will now try to explain more clearly, by means of examples, exactly what I mean by this first problem --- exactly what I mean by a general description of the whole Universe. I will try, that is, to mention the most important differences between the descriptions given by different philosophers. And I wish, for a particular reason, to begin in a particular way. There are, it seems to me, certain views about the nature of the Universe, which are held, now-a-days, by almost everybody. They are so universally held that they may, I think, fairly be called the views of Common Sense. I do not know that Common Sense can be said to have any views about the whole Universe: none of its views, perhaps, amount to this. But it has, I think, very definite views to the effect that certain kinds of things certainly are in the Universe, and as to some of the ways in which these kinds of things are related to one another. And I wish to begin by describing these views, because it seems to me that what is most amazing and most interesting about the views of many philosophers, is the way in which they go beyond or positively contradict the views of Common Sense: they profess to know that there are in the Universe most important kinds of things, which Common Sense does not profess to know of, and also they profess to know that there are not in the Universe (or, at least, if there are, do do not know about it), things of the existence of which Common Sense is most sure. I think, therefore, you will best realise what these philosophical descriptions of the Universe really mean, by realising how very different they are from the views of Common Sense --- how far, in come points, they go beyond Common Sense, and how absolutely, in others, they contradict it. I wish, therefore, to begin by describing what I take to be the most important views of Common Sense: things which we all commonly assume to be true about the Universe, and which we are sure that we know to be true about it.
Now that's a big paragraph! (Did you make it through the whole thing? It's worth digesting, if only for the experience of trying to keep so many ideas straight all at once.)
As an editor, I would suggest breaking the big paragraph first just prior to "Many philosophers (though by no means all)...." So:
To begin with, then, it seems to me that the most important and interesting thing which philosophers have tried to do is no less than this; namely: To give a general description of the whole of the Universe, mentioning all the most important kinds of things which we know to be in it, considering how far it is likely that there are in it important kinds of things we do not absolutely know to be in it, and also considering the most important ways in which these various kinds of things are related to one another. I will call all this, for short, "Giving a general description of the whole Universe," and hence will say that the first and most important problem of philosophy is: To give a general description of the whole Universe.
As one paragraph, this is tidy, given our general approach to paragraphs. It begins and ends with his point about giving a description of "the whole universe", and in between elaborates on that point in a useful way.
We could break the paragraph again just prior to "There are, it seems to me...." At risk of belabouring the point, I'll stop the analysis here. The point is simply that, though everything in Moore's original paragraph is related to his main topic, breaking in a few spots could help the reader along, and help show the relationship between the ideas in the paragraph.
In addition to excessively long paragraphs, very short paragraphs are to be avoided. Following Moore's topic, we wouldn't write:
The goal of philosophy is to give a general description of the whole universe.
A general description of the whole universe includes a description of all physical sciences and all human consciousness.
Human consciousness, though usually the purview of psychology, has its roots in philosophy.
In this case, the single-sentence paragraphs feel either incomplete or as though they are related in an unstated way. Best to either elaborate further or to more clearly state the relationships between the thoughts.
So in general, when composing paragraphs, accustom yourself to asking:
- Have I said enough?
- Have I said too much?