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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The Uses of the Colon

Last week I started a short punctuation series on semicolons, colons, and dashes. I had said it was going to be a two-part series, but I was only kidding myself. Once a person starts talking about colons and dashes, it’s hard to stop. So we find ourselves not at the end of a two-part series, but spang in the middle of a three-part series: colons today, dashes next week.

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What Are Semicolons for?

Habit reader recently asked about the use of semicolons, colons, and dashes. These punctuation marks can be exceedingly helpful for expressing nuance in your prose. But if you misuse them, bad things can start happening to good people. Nuance is a delicate flower; it wilts in the presence of faulty punctuation. This week’s issue of The Habit is the first of a two-part series on the effective use of these three punctuation marks. We’ll talk about semicolons today and colons and dashes next week.

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