Tuesday, March 5, 2013

"New" Ways to Think About Paragraphs

A sheep in a fence.  Chickens in a fence.  A pig in a fence.
This essay about a farm has body paragraphs about sheep, chickens, and pigs.

“How long is a paragraph?” I ask my new groups of college writers every new term. 

“Three to five sentences long,” they respond. I spend the next eight weeks of class persistently and vehemently attempting to eradicate that response from their conscious and subconscious minds. This “three-to-five-sentence thinking” can lead to many problems, from a student’s inability to read and comprehend study materials to a basic lack of understanding about how to write effectively.

In order to better prepare middle and high school students for college or professional writing, they need to be taught to think about paragraphs with much more complexity.

What Is a Paragraph? A Paragraph is the Unit of Reason

In a world where students are tested in English via a standardized multiple-choice exam, lessons in English have had to become mere sound-bites, or easy-to-remember and oversimplified ways of thinking, which leads to classes of graduates beginning college or entering the work force with inadequate skill sets. When students think about paragraphs as a set number of sentences, what they’re missing is the idea that the paragraph is a unit of reason, just as the sentence is the basic unit of thought. They can neither identify the topic sentence in what they read, nor can they incorporate topic sentences into their own writing.

What Does a Paragraph Do? A Paragraph is a Fence that Holds Ideas Together

The comparison of a paragraph to a fence stems from a piece of creative nonfiction written by Sherman Alexie, entitled “Superman and Me.” In “Superman and Me,” Alexie explains how he learned to read and the importance of reading in his life. In recounting the moment when he recognizes the paragraph for the first time, he writes, “I realized that a paragraph was a fence that held words. The words inside a paragraph worked together for a common purpose. They had some specific reason for being inside the same fence.” He goes on to describe how thinking about “everything in terms of paragraphs” then changed the way he thought about writing essays and learning to read.

For students who think metaphorically, often visual learners or students who self-identify as people who “think in pictures,” thinking about a paragraph as a fence (or any other appropriate comparison) can help them overcome the three-to-five-sentence mentality. Instead of focusing on completing a set number of sentences, students who think about paragraphs as fences think about their ideas, and how ideas can either be inside or outside of any given “fence.” After students begin thinking about their own ideas and the organization of those ideas, their writing can flourish.

How Long Is a Paragraph? A Paragraph is as Long as Necessary to Support a Topic Sentence with Unity, Coherence, and Clarity

For students who learn by first memorizing rules or definitions, a more thorough definition might serve to replace a simplistic response. Just as the comparison of a paragraph to a fence helps students who “think in pictures” understand that it’s their ideas that are important, so too can a more thorough definition help students who “think in words” focus their writing.

For example, the key words in the response, “ A paragraph is as long as necessary to support a topic sentence with unity, coherence, and clarity” can be used to remind a student, almost like a checklist, how to compose effective paragraphs that truly communicate ideas to a reader.

  • A paragraph must contain a clear topic sentence about one main idea. 
  • A paragraph must offer support or evidence to prove the main idea. 
  • A paragraph should support only one main idea. 
  • A paragraph should be well-ordered, and the writing should flow from one piece of evidence to another. 
  • A paragraph should be proofread for clarity.

Whatever the statement a teacher composes about how students should think about paragraphs, it should not be merely prescriptive, but truly define the paragraph as a complex set of ideas working together to support a claim.

Perhaps over time, my students will less and less often respond to “What’s a paragraph?” with “Three to five sentences.” In the meantime, however, I will continue to combat their misunderstanding with a few “new” ways to think about paragraphs.

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  • Alexie, S. (1997). Superman and Me. In Schakel, P. & Ridl, J. (Eds.). Approaching Literature: Writing + Reading + Thinking (2nd ed.), (pp. 4 - 6). Boston, MA: Bedford/St. Martin's.


  1. I really enjoyed reading this, and it helped me better understand what a paragraph is and it also let me know that the old 3-5 sentences is just a myth and I thank you for that. i always wanted to know how I was supposed to stop writing if I was in the middle of writing something so as not to go beyond the 5 sentences that had been allotted to me. :-)

    1. You are very welcome, Marla! I once had a student who simply wrote one long paper with no paragraphs and then indented every five lines. Holy moly! :- ) I'm very happy to dispel the myth.