When to hit the enter key: On paragraph breaks

Aaron Nelson, a member of The Habit, recently asked an excellent question about paragraphs:

Many years ago in an undergraduate English class, a professor told me that he did not like my paragraphing choices. It’s still not clear to me exactly what he meant. I struggle with knowing when to hit the enter key when writing both dialogue and non-dialogue alike. I’m not even sure how paragraphs are supposed to function, especially in fiction.

Remember the five-paragraph essays you wrote in school? It gives us a pretty good place to start talking about paragraphs. In a five-paragraph essay, you express a big idea (a thesis statement) in Paragraph 1. In Paragraphs 2-4, the “body” of the essay, you make three points in support of your thesis (one point per paragraph). Then, in Paragraph 5, you summarize and restate what you just said in the previous four paragraphs.

I endorse the five-paragraph essay formula, but I endorse it in the same way I endorse training wheels. It’s a way for a novice to learn some of the fundamental skills of persuasive writing, but five-paragraph essays are rarely persuasive. Nevertheless, they illustrate how paragraphs are supposed to work.

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