Constructing Nonfiction Paragraphs

Constructing the ideal paragraph can be difficult. That’s why teachers start discussing the mechanics of it in elementary and continue right on through to grade 12. Solving the mystery behind paragraphs is a vital step in writing books.

A paragraph contains one subject only. This one subject is introduced in the first sentence, supported in the body and concluded in the final sentence.

  • The introduction sentence introduces the topic in a general manner.
  • The supporting sentences are where the meat of information is located. It contains specific facts.
  • The conclusion sentence wraps up the idea and summarizes the topic of the paragraph in a few words.

An Exercise for Creating a Nonfiction Paragraph

First Sentence: Introduce subject by answering: What is a chicken?

Points to Cover in the body of the paragraph:

  • Chickens are domesticated birds that lay eggs.
  • Female chickens are hens.
  • Male chickens are roosters.
  • Hens lay eggs.
  • What do they look like?

Last Sentence: Conclusion: And that’s what a chicken is.

Resulting Paragraph

Chickens are birds that have been around for centuries. They were domesticated to provide eggs and meat for human consumption. One of the earliest recognised breeds is the Dorking, recorded in Italy in the mid-1700s. Female chickens are called hens, and males are called roosters. Only hens lay eggs, and only roosters crow. Chickens have two claw-like feet, two wings and are covered in feathers. These birds are so familiar that almost everyone in the world can identify them.

Dorking Hen

A Few Rules for Writing Nonfiction Paragraphs

  1. They should contain only one idea.
  2. Each time a different idea, tone or subject is introduced, a new paragraph must be started.
  3. They should be no longer than 1/3 of the page and preferably shorter.
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Regarding Rule #2: If a new paragraph is not started when a new idea, tone or subject is introduced, readers may become confused because they didn’t have time to process the information before something new was introduced.

Think about technical books that can have lengthy paragraphs, some that go on for a page or more and cover several ideas on the subject. The human brain can have a tough time digesting and comprehending it in this form. Readers may pause and think about the ideas before continuing to read. If they do this, they may lose their spot in one large paragraph.

Now think about directions for putting things together or for a recipe. The short paragraphs focus on one action, giving readers time to process the step, perhaps perform it, before continuing to the next step.

Rule #3 is not always followed, but I recommend it for several reasons. When a reader looks at a page and sees only one lengthy paragraph, an invisible weight falls upon their shoulders. The amount of reading to reach the next page is mammoth, and they might decide they’ll stop there for the night.

In contrast, if paragraphs are short, they are more likely to read this ‘one last page’ before turning out the light.

More than a dozen years ago, I was taught that shorter paragraphs hold the attention of readers better than longer ones. This is why paragraphs in newspapers and magazines are shorter than what we might have been taught at school.

I’ve been writing columns for so long that I naturally write in shorter paragraphs. Fortunately, this was good practice for writing blog posts and fiction.

One problem I have with lengthy paragraphs is I get lost easier. A quick glance to see who came into the room or what the goat knocked over can make me lose my spot. With shorter paragraphs, I easily find my place again.

The last reason why I’ll suggest shorter paragraphs are  better is for dramatic effect. Take this section of writing as an example.



This piece could have easily been written in two paragraphs, but the same effect may not be felt.



What do you think? Are the dramatic effects the same in both writing paragraph styles? Or do the shorter paragraphs leave more of an impression.

Final Tips

  • Paragraphs should vary in length because it is more pleasant to the eye.
  • Paragraphs must be indented in fiction, but it is okay to make the first paragraph flush to the left. In nonfiction, paragraphs can be indented or written in the style of this blog: flush to the left with a space between them.

Next Week: Constructing Paragraphs in Fiction

If you found this information helpful, please consider buying me a cup of tea ($1.50) as if we had chatted at a cafe and I shared this with you. [Payment is through PayPal.]

4 thoughts on “Constructing Nonfiction Paragraphs

  1. I have been fighting my brother (who just wrote his first book) regarding proper paragraphing. He was taught in elementary school that all aspects of one subject must appear in one paragraph. His book contains a single paragraph that contains 341 words, as well as several others between 250 and 300 words. I tried to edit several pages of his book, but he rejected all of my suggestions, including paragraphing. I referenced your explanation regarding paragraphing to try to educate him if he decides to write another book. Thank you. — Doug


    • Doug, he will find his way and what works for him. Perhaps his audience will love the longer paragraphs. I believe, however, most won’t. But if he finds a dedicated readership, it won’t matter. If his sentences are clear and easily understood, then it might not matter so much. Shorter paragraphs have come about more so in the past three decades or so. Books from decades ago had longer paragraphs, but readers were more in-tuned to what they were reading and had fewer distractions and longer attention spans. Thank you for sharing my post with him. He may eventually find a balance: short paragraphs with a few long ones to satisfy his need to keep things together.

      Unfortunately, the public school system doesn’t teach writing with the goal of book writing. I’m not sure what their goal is; perhaps theory writing. I don’t know. However, I had to unlearn many things to write books. If novel writers taught English class, then students who wanted to become writers would have a better foundation of learning.


  2. Thank you so much for sharing your writing wisdom! I was sipping my tea in Texas as I read your post.


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