Greetings friends. I wrote this piece because apparently it needed to be said, apparently there are no sane people left in the world of SF/F/H publishing. An unacceptable trend is being allowed to continue, to exist, to pervade our screens and devices.
That of the overly long paragraph.
So exactly what is an overly long paragraph?
Reading is like cooking: the first bite is with the eye. It’s an entirely visual medium, so it should be easy to take in. A paragraph should be no more than six lines long. I’m going to repeat that in the hope that mere repetition will make it sink in. A paragraph should be no more than six lines long.
Just to reinforce the point, here’s a visual representation of what six lines looks like.
There. See? Even that looks too damn long. I’m giving the extra line for those who absolutely insist on getting everything in.
Six lines is plenty. Anything more? Unnecessary. There’s no reason to write a paragraph longer than six lines before using a line break. And don’t get me started on the subject of line breaks. Apparently those have now gone the same way as the dodo. I understand the need for cost effectiveness in hardcopy publishing, but in electronic books, that excuse simply isn’t valid. Use line breaks, make a story readable!
You’ll by now, no doubt have noticed that all my paragraphs are quite short. There’s a reason for this. Well, there are two.
Reason the first:- I’ve got bad eyesight. I suffer from glaucoma, which means my peripheral vision is gradually decaying. If I read for a long time, I also get headaches. Tightly packed, overly long paragraphs don’t help this condition much.
Reason the second:- Visual Appeal. What kind of person would put down a huge chunk of text and think, ‘Yes, that looks fine. People will pay twelve cents a word for that.’? I’m a writer myself, sure I’m not Stephen King (and nor would I wish to be), but I am listed alongside my peers at the ISFDB, and I happen to think that writing, and reading both matter a great deal.
It appears that the large majority of writers who favour the long overly long paragraph hail from North America. I don’t know if this style of writing is taught in their school system. They are learning it from somewhere though, and the publishing system is allowing it to be deemed as acceptable.
[Please note:- this is just a personal observation by me, the author, and may not be true for all American writers.]
Overly long paragraphs aren’t a modern idea, or a product of the recent education system. Oh, no. Folks like Jules Verne favoured long paragraphs. Read Around The World In Eighty Days, and learn more about the Mormon Church than you’d probably want to, in hard-to-swallow, overly long paragraphs. H. G. Wells wasn’t as bad, but he wasn’t above writing his own huge chunky boys either.
The problem here is, these two giants influenced pretty much every writer who came after them, read their work, and thought ‘If this style works for them, I’m doing it too!’
Of the modern writers I read a lot, Philip K. Dick was possibly the single worst offender in this style. I would attribute a large amount of the blame for new and current writers who also now favour the style of overly long paragraphs. Too often now, do I start an ebook, and often an entire page or more is just one paragraph.
A story should be easy to read, pleasing to the eye. What it shouldn’t be, is painful to look at, hard for the brain to comprehend, and this is the main issue of the overly long paragraph. It’s akin to the info-dump, a large amount of text, a visual maze for the eye to take on.
While I can’t speak for anyone else, I find the overly long paragraph a daunting thing to read. I’d sooner prefer to skip over it, or not read the story at all. So publishers of this style are doing their writers a disservice by continuing to use it. If you respect the writers you are publishing, surely it’s your duty to make their work as appealing as possible, not just in a literary way but visually too?
An extra line break costs nothing, in terms of money, or even the loading speed of a webpage.
As a writer, ask yourself, why do I need a paragraph this long? Can I break it up and not lose the flow of my prose?
Let me tell you, the answer to that second question is yes you can and no you won’t. A reader would much sooner move to the next open line than struggle to follow a tightly packed row of line after line of text. Sure, Jules Verne did it. Philip K. Dick did it too. In the past people had negative attitudes and beliefs, but on the whole, we’ve grown as a species.
So there’s no need to continue using the overly long paragraph. Writers, respect your readers, don’t put them through the torture of having to read such badly formatted work. Publishers, respect both the author and writer by presenting the most visually appealing piece of work you can put online.
Many of the worst offenders currently pay professional rates, I don’t feel it’s very professional to present work any less well than it could be. It’s not hard to ask a writer, “Would you mind if we inserted some line breaks in this, to break the paragraphs up a little?”
I’m sure it’s better than the writer reading comments like, “Who the hell thought this style of formatting was readable? It’s just a damn text block!”
It’s fine to be inspired by Verne, Wells and Dick. Just don’t copy everything about them. Write your own stories, make them readable, and don’t fall into the trap of the overly long paragraph.
Thank you for listening to the ravings of a mad man.