I recently had a chat with a fellow writer (S. A. Hunt) who was reading Strange Places, and while he said very nice things about the story, he commented that the paragraphs were rather long. Blink. Really? I’ve never had anybody say that to me before, so his comment took me a bit by surprise. But of course, after the inevitable wave of self-doubt had passed, I was left with a burning curiosity and decided to investigate.
So, just how long should a paragraph be, anyway? It had never occurred to me to even ask the question. If you search Google, you’ll encounter a million bloggers and pundits who all say more or less the same thing: a paragraph is as long as it needs to be. Grumble. Perhaps true, but like much of the advice given to writers, this particular form of truth is not very helpful. Some of us need numbers, dammit! Cold, hard facts. So I decided that this situation called for a creativity hack.
First up, let’s bring in some data. A quick scan through my vast collection of ebooks revealed a nice population of fantasy titles that provide a reasonable cross-sampling of the modern fantasy genre. The titles I chose were:
- The Lord of the Rings, and The Hobbit, both by JRR Tolkien
- The Wizard of Earthsea, by Ursula LeGuin
- The Final Empire (Mistborn #1), by Brandon Sanderson
- The Black Company, by Glen Cook
- The Prince of Nothing, by R. Scott Bakker
- Assassin’s Apprentice, by Robin Hobb
- The Princess Bride, by William Goldman
- Lord Foul’s Bane (Thomas Covenant #1), by Stephen Donaldson
- and The Dark Tower, by Stephen King
In addition to these well known, definitive works, I also included my own Strange Places, and The Whirlwind in the Thorn Tree, by S. A. Hunt – the friend whose comment started this whole investigation. Armed with this body of data to examine, I then wrote some code to parse the books into paragraphs and count the words. Here’s what I found…
Longest Paragraph: The book with the longest paragraph was The Prince of Nothing, which had one paragraph of 508 words. None of the other books topped 500 words in a single paragraph, although there were three that surpassed 450: Assassin’s Apprentice (453), The Hobbit (458), and The Lord of the Rings (483). At the other end of the scale, The Whirlwind in the Thorn Tree‘s longest paragraph was only 114 words, and The Final Empire was also pretty svelte, with a longest paragraph of 134 words. Among all the books, the average length of their longest paragraphs was 341 words.
Average Paragraph Length: On the light end of the spectrum, there were five titles that averaged between 25 and 30 words per paragraph: The Black Company (26.9), The Final Empire (27.6), Prince of Nothing (28.6), The Dark Tower (28.9), and The Princess Bride (also 28.9). There were 5 titles at the heavier-weight end, all of which had an average paragraph length of more than 50 words. These were: The Lord of the Rings (51.8), Assassin’s Apprentice (53.0), The Hobbit (53.3), Strange Places (57.1) and The Wizard of Earthsea (61.2). The average paragraph length across all the books was 41.7 words per paragraph.
Mostly Less Than: Another useful statistic is something called the 95th percentile, but in honor of Miracle Max, I prefer to call this the “mostly less than” value. It’s the number of words that most paragraphs in the book are smaller than. For example, the skinniest title in this regard is The Black Company, in which 95% of the paragraphs were shorter than 68 words. Other skinny-assed contenders were The Final Empire (mostly less than 69 words), The Whirlwind in the Thorn Tree (less than 76 words), The Prince of Nothing (85 words), and The Dark Tower (95 words). All of these were mostly less than 100 words per paragraph. The bulkier works, with a “mostly less than” value higher than 150, were: Assassin’s Apprentice (152), Strange Places (166), The Hobbit (170), and The Wizard of Earthsea (184). And the average “mostly less than” size was 120 words.
Here are the details, if you want to poke around for yourself. (You can resort the table by clicking on any of the column headings.)
|Book||Max||Average||Median||Mostly Less Than|
|Whirlwind in Thorn Tree||114||31.5||27||76|
|The Final Empire||134||27.6||23||69|
|Lord Foul's Bane||256||43.7||34||115|
|The Dark Tower||286||28.9||18||95|
|The Wizard of Earthsea||395||61.2||40||184|
|The Lord of the Rings||483||51.8||41||142|
|Prince of Nothing||508||28.6||19||85|
When we graph the paragraph lengths from these twelve books, there appear to be three approximate shapes to the curves we get. (If you want to see a graph in greater detail, just click the thumbnail.)
In the first grouping, we see an aggressive emphasis on very short paragraphs and a rapid plunge into the medium-length range, with the bars scooping down low and pretty much disappearing around the 150 word mark. Although in each case, there are a very few outlier paragraphs straggling way out to the right. This aggressive paragraph economy can be seen in: The Dark Tower, The Prince of Nothing, and The Princess Bride.
In the second, and most populous group, the paragraphs lengths taper off less aggressively, in a slightly fatter scoop-shaped curve, and disappear near the 200-250 word mark, however, like the first group, there are a very few paragraphs scattered all the way up to the 400 – 500 word range. This group includes The Lord of the Rings, The Hobbit, Assassin’s Apprentice, The Wizard of Earthsea and Strange Places.
The third group is a bit of a puzzle to me. Instead of paragraph lengths tapering in a natural scoop shape from lots of short paragraphs toward fewer longer ones, the paragraph lengths in these titles drop in a strange, alternating fashion, with very little scooping. This alternating shows up as a regular set of spiked bars, which can be seen most clearly in The Final Empire (Mistborn). It’s as though there are two different curves here. Every third bar is dramatically higher than its neighbors. Almost twice as high. With The Whirlwind in the Thorn Tree, the spikes occur approximately every 8 bars, and with Lord Foul’s Bane, every second bar seems to switch between high and low counts. In contrast, The Black Company seems to have the opposite problem from the others on the group, with every fourth or fifth bar in its graph having a significantly lower count than its neighbors.
I believe what we’re seeing in this group is the hand of human intervention. In these four titles, I suspect that the author (or an editor) has systematically revised these manuscripts to eliminate the longer paragraphs after they’ve been written, by splitting them apart. Such conscious human manipulation often creates these “ghost curve” effects in data. This interpretation seems to be supported as well by the fact that all four of these titles have much lower ‘longest paragraph’ values than the others. Only Lord Foul’s Bane has any paragraphs of more than 200 words. I don’t think that’s because the authors did not naturally write any long paragraphs. I think it’s because they explicitly hunted them down and killed them later. I should point out that this effect is simply a mathematical oddity. It doesn’t appear to have had any noticeable effect for readers, other than the obvious intention of smoothing the reading flow by eliminating those long wall-of-text experiences that some readers dislike.
And as for Hunt’s observation that Strange Places has some long paragraphs? Clearly he’s right. It does. But am I worried? Not so much. With graph-mates like Tolkien, LeGuin, and Hobb, I like to think I’m in pretty good company.
What about you? Do you run into wall-of-text problems as a reader? Or do you get so deeply invested in books that you just burn on through the denser stuff? And if you’re a writer, do you consciously revise for paragraph length? If so, what is your standard? Nothing more than 100 words? 200? Two days ago, I didn’t even realize this was a thing, so now I’m curious to see how big and deep this thing actuality is.