Wednesday, June 27, 2012

How Long?

Ever since we’ve been able to string our first sentence together—See Jane run—and instructors have been handing out writing assignments, we’ve asked the age old question… How long? How long does the sentence have to be? The paragraph? The term paper? The thesis? The chapter? The book?

Some people want their answer to be straightforward as my English teacher from high school would like to assign her lessons. “It needs to be 2,000 words long with ten paragraphs and a maximum of five auxiliary verbs.” Yeah, those were some tough papers to write… or as I should say without the auxiliary verb… That teacher possessed a strict guideline despite the fact I fondly remember her as one of the greatest grammarians ever. But my favorite answer to the question HOW LONG came from my middle school English teacher. “It’s like a mini skirt. Make sure it’s long enough to cover the topic, but short enough to stay interesting.”

I’m by no means an authority on the length question, but today I’m going to share what I've learned about the subject. How long.


We’ll start with sentences. Sounds like a good place to me. I’d always heard a sentence was a subject and a verb containing a complete thought. “Jane ran.” Subject, verb, complete thought. There’s our sentence. Sounds simple enough.

So, let’s make it a little more complex. “As Jane ran barefoot between the towering oaks in the woods next to the house where she grew up.” Yes, it still has the subject—Jane—and the verb—ran—but we lost our complete thought after adding “As” to the beginning. As Jane’s running to wherever she’s going, we need to follow thought with what happened while she was on the go. Or… we could simply delete “AS” to give the sentence a complete thought and make it grammatically correct. Am I making any sense yet? A sentence needs to be long enough to contain a subject (even if it’s only implied), verb, and complete thought.


Okay, I had to go to a dictionary to get the correct definition of a paragraph. So, according to, a paragraph is “a basic unit of prose. It is usually composed of several sentences that together develop one central idea. The main sentence in a paragraph is called the topic sentence.”  

I have a bad habit of falling into a rut over paragraph length. I get to thinking,this paragraph is way too long, no reader is gonna want to read such a long paragraph.” So, I’ll press enter and indent, starting a new one…whether that’s right or wrong. But we should always remember to keep sentences with one central idea together.

Here’s one trick you could do to cut a paragraph shorter if you’re getting nervous about its length. Say you’re writing a scene where the hero just laid eyes on the woman who’ll end up being his heroine. He’s probably going to describe what she looks like. If he likes what he sees, he might have a lot of description, which would most likely make a lengthy paragraph. So, if he’s just described her hair, and eyes, and legs, and said how soft her skin looked, you could break the paragraph and make a short new one by making a side note—or rather internal monologue if you will—like, “He’d really like to find out just how soft that skin was.” That sentence doesn’t go with the central idea of the paragraph; it really needs its own paragraph all by itself. Ergo, you’d have a nice little break there before starting a new paragraph to describe more traits of your amazing heroine. Plus, it makes the story more interesting to read it in that conversational way.


I’m letting Noah Lukeman take care of my chapter length discussion. Author of The First Five Pages (which is a book EVERY writer should own), Lukeman says on Page 172 of his book:
"Each chapter must be thought of as its own complete unit, ready to excerpt should a magazine want it (indeed, this very chapter was excerpted prior to publication); the same holds true for paragraphs and sentences. Do you resolve in the end of the chapter what you establish in the beginning? Many writers don't; they just plug along, inserting chapter breaks wherever they feel their text can use one—sometimes completely arbitrarily. Writers often ask me: How long should my chapters be? Is five pages too short: Is forty too long? The fact that they're even asking this question indicates they're thinking of the chapters in the wrong way—merely as dividers for a greater whole. Of course, a chapter needs to be part of a greaterwhole, but it also needs to be its own unit. The appropriate length is whatever length is necessary to accomplish whatever that individual chapters sets out to do. "


After reading that great piece of spectacular advice, I probably don’t even need to go into book length. A story, of course, should be as long as it needs to be to set up a conflict and then unravel a resolution for that conflict. The problem with that answer occurs when we’ve finished our story and begin looking for a publisher who’ll actually buy a book within the limits of your word count. But I gotta say, the uprising of e-publishers saved the day there, because a good portion of them will accept a story anywhere from 15,000 words to 125,000 words. Thanks guys!

So, okay, there’s my writing advice for the day, whether you needed it or not!! Thanks!


Julie Eberhart Painter said...

Interesting advice for each portion of a work.

I see a lot of two and three word sentences used for emphasis. Sometimes that's an overused device.

The last part of the paragraph should be the most important point and will usually contain a hook. Otherwise how can we keep them up at night?

Joe said...

In agreement with a lot of this, especially the chapter length one. Every chapter is indeed part of the 'greater whole' but it has to push your story forward in some way, otherwise it's pointless and redundant.

Great post. Thanks for sharing!

January Bain said...

I agree with Julie about the hook to keep writers reading and Joe about each chapter pushing your story forward. My first time out of the gate I didn't realize that one shouldn't end a chapter with the heroine going to sleep because your writer might also choose to go to sleep!!!
Thought the miniskirt idea was fun!

T. M. Hunter said...

I think I'd get along quite well with your middle school English teacher, myself...

Anonymous said...

I always attempt to end my chapters where the reader can't stop but has to venture into the next no matter what time it is. Also attempt to be between 1800 and 3500 words. Too short and just as they get into it they're ripped away. Too long and they lose sight of what the chap was about. Kind of like the three bears, got to pick it juuuuuust right.

Michael Davis (
Author of the Year (2009)
Award of Excellence (2011)