The death of the paragraph my arse.

OK, start again.

Do you care about the paragraph? I do. But I’m in two minds about Andy Bodle’s polemical article in the Guardian this morning, entitled “Breaking point: is the writing on the wall for the paragraph?”

After a rather doomy strapline thing…

If paragraphs continue to shrink at their current rate, they’ll soon cease to exist altogether. Should we care?

… it has a fascinating section that traces the evolution of the humble paragraph from ancient Greece and the early days of movable type. About the only thing missing is the Book of Kells.

But all that comes later. First, Bodle argues that (oh shaggit, just to annoy him I’m going to use bullet points):

  • We live in a “texty, Tweety, Viney world”
  • This has degraded our attention spans
  • Have I lost you yet?
  • So brevity is the order of the day
  • I’ve lost you, haven’t I?
  • So you get a maximum 600 words for a blogpost; 300 to 500 words for an Associated Press story; eight seconds for a political soundbite
  • Otherwise you’re lost

It’s a pity that Bodle uses negatively charged economic terms to talk about all this, because the connotations are less about “economy” (in the positive sense of thrift or brevity) and more about right-wing economics:

  • “Webmasters worldwide have launched an emergency austerity programme” to prune back prose
  • Shorter sentences mean a “fragmentation of information”
  • This fragmentation implies something verrrrrry bad, as if prose has been been subjected to the terrors of ergonomics and time-and-motion studies and this sliced up and butchered information is the result
  • And “the most obvious casualty of this economy drive is the venerable paragraph”

Bodle gives the excellent example of a recent piece on the BBC’s website that has mostly one-sentence paragraphs. He says “the layout seemed dimly familiar”. Yes, it’s of a Ladybird Books type storybook…

The public domain image used by the Guardian

The public domain image used by the Guardian

And his conclusion?

….if things continue in this vein, before long the paragraph will go the same way as the harpsichord, the fob watch and the returned phone call.

I think we’d better start again (again).

* * *

So you wanna write a crime novel? Then try Stephen King’s On Writing. It’s a damn good read – strictly speaking not a step-by-step manual, though it does contain much about how to write. About eight of its pages deal with an essential tool in the writer’s toolbox: the paragraph. King argues that:

…the paragraph, not the sentence, is the basic unit of writing – the place where coherence begins and words stand a chance of becoming more than mere words.

On this, I guess, Bodle and King would be in full agreement. Yet with King there’s this feeling that when it comes to paragraphing your fiction you need to unlearn the bad habits you picked up in How To Write A School Essay.

With an essay, the paragraphs are supposed to organise your thoughts in a particular way. A format if you like. So maybe begin with a “topic sentence”, followed by further sentences that elaborate and explain. End of paragraph. Another topic sentence, more sentences to amplify the idea. New paragaph. Topic sentence, further sentences, new para. And so on.

In fiction, King writes,

…the paragraph is less structured – it’s the beat instead of the actual melody.

Damn. Is he good or what? The beat not the melody.

Later, King writes about how “the turns and rhythms of the story” dictate where each new paragraph falls.

I could add a few other obvious rules about paragraphing your crime fiction. For example, a good convention – not quite an iron rule – is how to deal with dialogue. Many writers find it’s better to distinguish between speakers by giving each speaker a new paragraph:

“You aren’t going to shoot me?”
“Yeah,” she replied. “Sure am.”

Sometimes a very short paragraph – perhaps a sentence fragment – can heighten the drama:

“You aren’t going to shoot me?”
“Yeah,” she replied. “Sure am.”
As if.
It weren’t even loaded.

From Miriam Melia's brilliant spoof book "We Go To The Gallery"

From Miriam Melia’s brilliant spoof book “We Go To The Gallery”

So a thriller or crime novel with tons of dialogue and lots of beats will have shortish paragraphs, and plenty of white space on the page. King argues that if you look at a page at random you can tell from the paragraphing whether the prose is dense or has been given a chance to “breathe”.

White space, beats and breathing. Superb advice.

* * *

As books move from printed page to eReader, we need a radical rethink about how we do paragraphing. I don’t have a definitive answer, and would love to know what other readers and writers think.

As for where to start, do we really need yet another boring “Which is better, book or eBook?” debate? Or totting up the pros and cons of each medium? Or trotting out the usual stuff about the terrible deterioration of attention spans in the age of the Twitterati, and loaded terms like “austerity”, “fragmentation” and “casualties”? Or dragging out the “Peter and Jane” Ladybird books to imply some sort of infantilisation of the written word?

Instead, let’s reflect on a few common tendencies whenever a new medium or technology comes along.

In the beginning, a new medium / technology tends to be framed in terms of older technologies and metaphors. That’s fine, up to a point. It’s how we make sense of the world. Hence the “iron horse”, “horseless carriage”, “DNA fingerprinting” (when Alec Jeffreys coined that, he knew it wasn’t literally fingerprinting, but reckoned it would make immediate sense to the lay person), “folders” on “desktops”, search “engines”, “tablets” (as in iPads), “talking books”, “eBooks”. Even Amazon markets its Kindle with the slogan “Reads like a book”.


But does it really? It’s just one example of how the content of a book is treated as somehow being divorced from its form. Is the content really “basically the same thing” whether it’s in print or on screen or being read out loud in an audiobook?

In the beginning was the word. And many publishers and self-published authors continue to treat the main body of text in the eBook version as a sort of “direct reflection” or “transfer” of a printed novel. You can’t blame them because it’s a deceptive process: with one simple click of the mouse (in a program such as Calibre) I can turn the finished manuscript of my book’s print version (in Word or PDF) into, say, an .epub or .mobi or .azm3 file for the eBook version.

Hey presto and that’s that, as far as the “direct reflection” school goes: apart from the cover and a few front pages and the table of contents, why bother to rewrite the book itself? Aren’t they exactly the same words?

* * *

I recently started to use my Kindle to proof drafts of the print version of my latest novel. I could have printed out every page but I’m mean, and I was on the move. Having it on the Kindle was handy.

Yet this text on paper and text on screen are never the same thing. They are separate media with two fundamentally different physical experiences for the person reading them.

For starters, the screen version is more tiring on the eyes. And the navigation is different, whatever they tell you. They way you flick through the pages and the way your eyes and your brain take in the information are very different.

We all know that a fat blockbuster “airport” novel weighs far more than a Kindle and can be harder to handle. Yet when it’s open on a double-page spread it offers far more information to the human eye at a single glance than the screen of a tiny mobile device.

Take a typical modest paperback. It’s, say, eight inches high by five inches wide. So the scannable area in front of your eyes will be eight inches by ten (5″ x 2 facing pages). Eighty square inches.

On my Kindle screen, the reading area is much smaller. It’s a single page, about four inches by six inches. Twenty-four square inches. Max.

Again, this is not so much about the pros and cons of the printed book or Kindle version; it’s about acknowledging the physical and psychological differences. And a big difference is the paragraphing. Even with a book that I knew inside out (my own drafts) I found that the smaller reading area of a Kindle screen had different “paragraphing needs” (for want of a better phrase) than the printed double-page spread.

As your eyes scan down a small screen, shorter paragraphs of smaller “chunks” of information seem far easier to handle. It’s a bit like how the narrow columns and smaller typefaces in a printed newspaper need much shorter paragraphs than the much wider columns of an academic journal or hardback book. It needs this further chunking of information in order to improve the “scannability” as your eye jumps from line to line.

The Guardian article acknowledges this too:

Of course, different rules apply in different media. Paragraphs in newspapers have always been shorter than in novels and essays, chiefly because their pages are split into columns. With narrower margins, more frequent indentations are required to break up the daunting blocks of text.

I’m not saying that eBooks will all start using one-sentence paragraphs overnight, but I suspect that readability conventions will evolve: expect significantly shorter paragraphs in eBook versions, perhaps even with additional spacing or line breaks to separate off paragraphs rather than the simple line indent.

The text you are reading right now is an example of all that. It’s not in a printed book, or even on newsprint. It’s in a different medium, which ought to be respected.

Though this text is not quite the literal “writing on the wall”, it is writing on a computer monitor, it’s being read on a laptop perhaps, or your mobile device with a tiny screen. It needs extra “scannability”, more space, different rhythms, more room to breathe.

Brevity isn’t just about being less daunting. Short can be good. No flabby prose. Concise sentences and paragraphs. See Peter. See Jane. Jane has a gun.

While I fully understand how “The Long Read” is a backlash against soundbite mediocrity, we’re also seeing eBooks move towards shorter forms – short stories, novellas, “novelettes”. And I can see nothing intrinsically wrong with taking the eBook version of your book and adding more paragraphs if that makes sense, if it respects the medium and the reader and the story.

Short and sweet doesn’t have to mean shallow. A haiku, a sonnet, a four-minute fugue, a three-chord three-minute pop song can be a thing of beauty and complexity, for all its short and sweetness.

OK. Rant over. Have to dash. Time to organise the same-sex marriage referendum celebration party.