“Writing is visual — it catches the eye before it has a chance to catch the brain.”
William Zinsser, On Writing Well
On Writing Well is one of those classic writing guides that seems to improve with age. While it focuses on nonfiction, it also offers wisdom aplenty for those of us creating fictional worlds. A section devoted to paragraphing was chock-a-block with useful tips for us all, so I’m sharing them here:
Ponder length carefully: As a long-time journalist, our boy William is fond of short paragraphs. As he puts it, “Short paragraphs put air around what you write and make it look inviting, whereas a big chunk of uninterrupted type can discourage a reader from even starting to read.” Gadzooks! The last thing we want to do is to “discourage a reader!” And yet, William is quick to add: “A succession of tiny paragraphs is as annoying as a paragraph that’s too long….Actually, they make a reader’s job harder by chopping up a natural train of thought.” So choose your paragraph length carefully: let the thoughts you’re conveying dictate how long or short you go.
View paragraphs as building blocks: According to William, “good nonfiction writers…think in paragraph units, not sentence units. Each paragraph has its own integrity of content and is rounded off to serve as both an end and a springboard to what’s coming next.” I love the idea of thinking of the ending of one paragraph as a “springboard” to the next — what a dynamic, forward-driving concept!
Use paragraphing as a dynamic tool: In William’s view, paragraphing is a “road map” — a way of constantly orienting your readers and showing them the path that your thoughts are taking. Think of each paragraph as a “logical unit” — one that carries the reader along on a smooth, satisfying mini-journey.
Not surprisingly, William suggests that we analyze the prose of elegant nonfiction writers, E.B. White among them, to see how they marshal their paragraphs into fulsome, satisfying stories. Surely a fruitful idea — and one that we can bring to our fiction reading — and writing — as well. In the midst of reading O Pioneers! by Willa Cather, one of my all-time favorite authors, I’ve been struck anew by how lean, yet emotionally charged, her writing is. I’m going to check out her paragraphing more closely — might offer some clues to her style. Write on!