Forgot one!

I neglected to mention one of my biggest pet peeves.

Lack of paragraph breaks in page-long passages of text: reliable indication of megalomania, or simple rudeness?


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37 Responses

  1. Jill
    Jill June 23, 2006 at 9:08 am | *

    I would say, failure to take journalism classes in college. They hammer it in: A paragraph should have no more than five sentences. And that is stretching it.

  2. Rick DeMent
    Rick DeMent June 23, 2006 at 9:34 am |

    I thougt a paragraph was one comeplete thought composed of several sentances?

  3. randomliberal/Robert
    randomliberal/Robert June 23, 2006 at 9:36 am |

    Journalism classes mean nothing. I’ve never taken one (and i don’t plan to) and i still write better than most of the school newspaper staff.

    And five sentences only? Yikes. Although i guess that’s more for journalism (imagine that) than academic writing. So this entire comment by me is probably worthless. But i don’t care, i’m posting anyways.

  4. ole blue
    ole blue June 23, 2006 at 10:06 am |

    I believe it is just poor writing skills. I have seen such poor writing in newspapers and magazines that I often wonder if these people graduated high school.

  5. Magis
    Magis June 23, 2006 at 10:07 am |



  6. Allison
    Allison June 23, 2006 at 10:36 am |

    I’m with you on this one, Piny. My experience has been, though, that it’s usually neither megalomania nor rudeness, but instead simple lack of education.

  7. Mighty Ponygirl
    Mighty Ponygirl June 23, 2006 at 10:41 am |

    Ha! “Discuss” as the last line of a post has always worked my nerves. :) It’s not so horrible, because I understand the underlying sentiment of feeling that there is good discussion to have and not wanting to taint the process with bias, but it’s always rubbed the wrong way as smelling like a combo of intellectual laziness and/or authoritarianism.

    (nothing against piny)

  8. Natalia
    Natalia June 23, 2006 at 10:50 am |

    People also tend to type in huge paragraphs when they’re really excited about something.

  9. dug.inn
    dug.inn June 23, 2006 at 11:43 am |

    I tend to view the “Discuss.” last line as a wry let’s-pretend-this-is-an-essay-test sort of ironic device. Think of Mike Myers as ‘Linda Richman’ saying “Talk amongst yourselves. Here’s a topic … ”

  10. zuzu
    zuzu June 23, 2006 at 11:44 am |

    “The Holy Roman Empire was neither holy, nor Roman, nor an empire. Discuss.”

  11. kate
    kate June 23, 2006 at 11:56 am |

    Journalism classes that I took in the small joke of a college where I went only put such writing into the context of ‘journalism’. Such classification of writing still allowed run-on literal pontificators license to drive the rest of us cross-eyed, bored and apt to hitting the delete button often.

    I would posit Piny, that such habits point up the shining success of our ‘fiscal conservatives’ and their efforts to defund public education.

    Seems no mystery to me that the ability to organize one’s thoughts and execute them on the page in a manner that follows some sort of logic and cogency has become increasingly out of the grasp of the average citizen.

    All the better to serve our leader and his fine appointees.

  12. rejiquar
    rejiquar June 23, 2006 at 12:38 pm |

    Crappy editing tools. Even when I cut and paste from xemacs, my efforts to format often get subverted—nasty long and short lines and the like. Once you get used to a powerful text editor, reverting to the stuff provided by the average blog software is the pits.

    As for people who can’t write well—that’s been around ever since writing was invented, and is not going to go away. I’d rather see people express themselves badly than not at all. With luck, the ones who care will learn.

  13. Scott Eric Kaufman
    Scott Eric Kaufman June 23, 2006 at 1:18 pm |

    As someone who writes in long, winding paragraphs, I feel the need to defend: sometimes it’s not possible to nuance an idea in short sentences. Think, for example, about a post and/or comment in which you want to address three topics, each of which requires five or six nuanced points. You could divide it into multiple comments, or you could aggregate all your points about topic #1 in one paragraph, topic #2 in another and topic #3 in a third. In that case, I’d say the content dictates a long paragraph.

    Sometimes it doesn’t. Sometimes two sentences will do.

    But that’s not always the case. As someone who teaches journalism–granted, literary journalism, so we’re not big on AP-style formatting–I’ve come to respect those writers who can write paragraphs with peaks and valleys, underbrush to move through and nooks to be surprised by. John McPhee’s the master of this. His paragraphs linger for pages, and often contain five or six punch-lines a piece.

    So I suppose I’d say that it depends on what you’re writing about and for whom, but on blogs–at least, on my blogs and in my comments–“megalomania” pretty much covers it.

  14. Rick B
    Rick B June 23, 2006 at 1:26 pm |

    One long paragraph often means it was written and never edited. It is poor writing, since good writing is almost entirely editing and rewriting.

  15. Norah
    Norah June 23, 2006 at 2:00 pm |

    Lack of paragraph breaks in page-long passages of text: reliable indication of megalomania, or simple rudeness?


  16. Deborah
    Deborah June 23, 2006 at 2:24 pm |

    I never read them for long enough to draw a conclusion.

    And never will.

  17. Joshua Norton
    Joshua Norton June 23, 2006 at 2:53 pm |

    Deborah says it best. A long-winded solid block of rant in the middle of a thread signifies that I should scroll faster.

  18. Kathy McCarty
    Kathy McCarty June 23, 2006 at 3:00 pm |

    Sometimes when you hit “return” to make a new paragraph, on Blogs, petitions, and emails to government officials, the whole damn thing instantly “sends” even though you are not done.

    This makes people do one long paragraph sometimes, because they fear their post will be sent off incomplete and nincompoopish.

  19. Thomas
    Thomas June 23, 2006 at 3:14 pm |

    Jill, journalism is a specialized kind of writing for a particular purpose. It presumes that the reader has little background knowledge, it conveys facts quickly and it provides superficial analysis. The style taught to journalists is appropriate to journalism, but I do not believe it can be elevated to a set of general principles.

    My copy of The Elements of Style, Rule 13 (titled “[m]ake the paragraph the unit of composition”) advises as follows:

    The paragraph is a convenient unit; it serves all forms of literary work. As long as it holds together, a paragraph may be of any length — a single, short sentence of a passage of great duration.

  20. s.hearn
    s.hearn June 23, 2006 at 3:17 pm |

    I’m reading a book by C.S. Lewis. He’s a pretty smart guy, but he has paragraphs that are two to three pages long. But the paragraphs are one idea. That one idea is just expanded on a little.

  21. Scott Eric Kaufman
    Scott Eric Kaufman June 23, 2006 at 3:27 pm |

    One long paragraph often means it was written and never edited. It is poor writing, since good writing is almost entirely editing and rewriting.

    I agree with the second half, but not the first. A long paragraph doesn’t necessarily mean it’s never been edited. If you were to walk into my classroom and ask my kids “What is writing?” they’d answer, in unison, “Writing is rewriting.” But they’ll still write long paragraphs when it’s appropriate. Here’s an example I used in class, stolen from the Writer-L listserv:

    I have the option of tuning out, half-listening, drifting about mentally while glancing around at the crowded and noisy dining room, watching almost simultaneously a sporting event being shown on television above the bar, an attractive blonde sitting sideways on a stool, and a fat man sitting at a nearby table with his mouth open, about to devour a piece of fish, a slender slice of flounder; and suddenly I imagine the fish coming to life, jumping off the fork, wiggling along the floor, and being retrieved by a waiter, who carries it in a napkin back to the kitchen, where I have visions of the fish swimming backward in time, a flashback fish floating freely ten days before in the Labrador Sea of northeastern Canada, a fish that is flat-bodied and pancake-size and has two eyes on the same side of its head, a Picasso fish, cruising easily along the muddy bottom of the sea in search of a shrimp until five minutes before sunrise, it glides into a net, is trapped, is confused, is frightened, but is not alone – hundreds of other Picasso-eyed flounder are ensnared there, swirling around, bumping into one another, angling to flip over the their seeing-eye side, hoping to figure out what’s going on – but then they are squeezed together as the big net soars drippingly out of the sea and scrapes along the side of a ship that is piloted by a bearded, brandy-breathed, scrawny, wife-abusing French-Canadian fisherman, who had been illegally trawling in that area all week, and who now, after grabbing fistfuls of wiggling fish out of the net with his gloved hands, hurls them into an ice-filled hold in the stern of his ship, and then starts his engine for the six-hour journey to the dockside depot of a seafood distributorship in Newfoundland, from which the fish will be flown a day later in refrigerated aluminum containers to JFK airport in New York, where Mafia-affiliated teamsters will receive them and drive them to the Fulton Street market, then deliver them into the hands of wholesale dealers whose vans on the following morning will be double-parked in front of myriad Manhattan restaurants, including Elaine’s Neapolitan chef, and will be cleaned by her Spanish-speaking scullions, and will be prepared and offered that night as a fresh fish special – flounder meuniere almondine, twenty-nine dollars – and this is what was ordered by, and brought to, the fat man I saw sitting in front of me with his mouth agape.

    Granted, that’s not only a single paragraph–it’s a single sentence–but it works. (Or doesn’t. There was a lively debate about whether it did or not, as you’d expect on a listserv full of professional writers and “professional” lurkers.) I don’t think you can, as a general rule, divorce length from content. You can divorce it from style, i.e. you can say that a page-long paragraph doesn’t belong in an Associated Press article, but not content.

    Now that I think about it, I’m not sure you can divorce it from context either: when I read my students’ articles, I do so in Word’s “Reading Layout.” Doing so transforms even short paragraphs into page-spanners, which may account for why I’ve trained myself to focus on paragraph coherence instead of length.

    I go on at such length because of comments like these:

    I never read them for long enough to draw a conclusion.

    And never will.

    I don’t mean to attack Deborah–who used a savvy line-break to emphasize the beat before the “and”–only suggest that she give some of us long-paragraphers a chance. We’re not all lazy editors. (I note the nice line-break to demonstrate the beauty of the form-content relationship in her comment, and perhaps convince that some long paragraphs are constructed with a similar concern for effect.)

    That said, of course I agree with everyone that blather is blather is blather. I wonder though if we’re not being deceived as to the length of what we read when read so much single-columned material online. A post which would look short at my place would look unbearable in a single-column format. Compare, for example, the first post of this paragraph here (two columns, no right margin), here (three columns, resizable center column) and following (single column, fixed width, not blockquoted to preserve aspect):

    As her name suggests, The Little Womedievalist lives in the sparsely populated academic ‘ghetto’ known as ‘medieval studies.’ (A wonderful place to visit, but I didn’t want to live there.) Thing is, when medievalists tip-toe into the 15th Century, they’re often paralyzed by the unfamiliar literary landscape. ‘Whither my rigid poetic forms? And feudalism! What have you people done with feudalism?’ Medievalists are confused, nay, mortified by the shiny baubles and the steam which periodically issues from them.

    Doesn’t that same paragraph look and, more importantly, feel longer or shorter depending on the format? I ask honestly, as I’m delivering a conference paper (along Bitch Ph.D., Michael Bérubé, and John Holbo) on the relationship of blogging and academia, and one of the points I want to address is the length and substance of blog posts.

    The other way I could attack this problem, I suppose, would be to ask: How many of y’all skipped all that jazz and just read this?

  22. Scott Eric Kaufman
    Scott Eric Kaufman June 23, 2006 at 3:31 pm |

    Yeah, what Thomas said and quoted, only with about 700 more words.

    And Kathy, this was the funniest thing I read all day:

    Sometimes when you hit “return” to make a new paragraph, on Blogs, petitions, and emails to government officials, the whole damn thing instantly “sends” even though you are not done.

    I’m always thinking about ways to create the suggestion of backstory. You do so with brevity and beauty here, you’ll forgive me if I add it to my commonplace book.

  23. Scott Eric Kaufman
    Scott Eric Kaufman June 23, 2006 at 4:11 pm |

    I wasn’t referring to literary long paragraphs. Imagine seeing that format in a comments thread on, say, child custody law.

    (steps back, blushing) Well then, nevermind. In that case (sheepishly) you’re certainly right to complain. A paragraph like that in legalese? I wouldn’t wish it upon my, well, anyone.

  24. Ron Sullivan
    Ron Sullivan June 23, 2006 at 6:59 pm |

    Scott, a paragraph like that in print is one thing; a paragraph like that onscreen in the font and layout that my old browser gives me for this blog is damned near unreadable. I mean physically unreadable. Not enough leading between lines, maybe. Aged eyeballs with astigmatism, maybe also.

    As a matter of courtesy, because I don’t know exactly how what I write online is going to appear to everyone who reads it, I generally keep my paragraphs shorter here than in print.

  25. Dee
    Dee June 23, 2006 at 8:06 pm |

    I chalk it up to laziness.

  26. Nomie
    Nomie June 23, 2006 at 8:22 pm |

    Ron S. hits exactly what I was planning on saying. Long paragraphs can work in print because usually there’s a little more space between lines. I got away with paragraphs lasting 1.5 pages in my thesis because it was double-spaced and hence readable. A giant block of text on a blog is usually going to be pretty rough to follow.

    I personally tend to consider those long paragraphs as evidences of mental diarrhea and avoid it as I would the regular sort.

  27. the missing y
    the missing y June 23, 2006 at 9:18 pm |

    Opinions on the appropriate length of paragraph also depend on where you come from.

    I grew up in Russia, and for the first couple of years in a US college, the requirement for clipped sentences and short paragraphs of English composition classes drove me nuts. I could never fit the whole topic into a procrustean five-paragraph essay, with its pre-determined paragraph and sentence lengths…

    I eventually learned to appeciate the get-to-the-point-and-get-out-of-this-elevator dynamic of American English. Still, knowing the shortest logical path from point A to point B rarely stops me from taking a long and winding road through the whole alphabet!

  28. rea
    rea June 24, 2006 at 9:29 am |

    Meglomania, of course.

    Long paragraphs require a higher degree of concentration on the part of the reader to follow the text.

    Short paragraphs can be understood at a glance.

    If the writer is focused on communication, short paragraphs are the tool of choice.

    And if the writer isn’t focused on communication–well, isn’t that rather meglomaniacal?

  29. Chris Clarke
    Chris Clarke June 24, 2006 at 10:17 am |

    If the writer is focused on communication, short paragraphs are the tool of choice.

    And if the writer isn’t focused on communication–well, isn’t that rather meglomaniacal?

    You know, I never realized before just how horrible a writer Wallace Stegner was. Thanks, rea!

  30. Chris Clarke
    Chris Clarke June 24, 2006 at 10:21 am |

    Oh, and what Randomliberalrobert said about journalism school. I get two kinds of interns at Earth Island Journal: those who’ve been to J-school and those who haven’t. I spend a lot more time teaching the first kind how to write than I do the second.

    That’s not saying anything about the interns’ talent: J-school tends to impress students with the need to write as though their readers are idiots.

  31. zuzu
    zuzu June 24, 2006 at 10:46 am |

    Interestingly enough, my campus newspaper was generally inundated with J-school students in about April or May of their senior year, looking for clips. Some of the people on staff were journalism majors, but most weren’t. And it’s not like Storrs is a hotbed of opportunity for young journalists looking to add to their portfolios. Campus radio and newspaper were about it unless you had a car and could get yourself to Hartford or New London.

    And, seriously, the articles submitted by the J-school students were almost uniformly bad.

  32. Shamhat
    Shamhat June 24, 2006 at 11:00 am |

    I think it’s actually more of a “graphic design” issue than a “logical organization of thought” issue. Some people honestly don’t consider how it looks on the page or screen. They move on to a new paragraph when they move on to a new topic.

  33. Sally
    Sally June 24, 2006 at 11:20 am |

    I agree that it’s a graphic design issue. I don’t have trouble reading long paragraphs on the page, but it’s much more difficult on a computer screen.

    This has, of course, never stopped me from posting 20-sentence paragraphs on various bloggers’ comments threads. But I am a megalomaniac. and besides, I assume that people just don’t read my comments if it annoys them.

  34. Bitch |Lab
    Bitch |Lab June 26, 2006 at 11:57 pm |

    I thought piny was just talking about folks who don’t know that you should break ideas up into paragraphs.

    I know what Eric means though because I moved from academic writing to journalism. The difference in style is huge. I had to learn to stop being so nuanced. Where I’d been taught to make statements with the appropriate qualifications, to acknowledge the traditions and debates in a field. Editors and readers want none of that, especially not technical journalism.

    Journalists have to keep it short to deal with two things: the fact that people skim and the fact that it’s appearing in columns. long paragraph in narrow columns tired the eyes.

    Similarly, long paragraphs on the Web are really difficult for people to read. It strains the eyes and makes people tune out, which may also be why piny’s finding it irritating. It’s exacerbated when the line height isn’t adjusted to correspond with font size and line length.

    Similarly, blogs that stretch across the page, with really long lines are very hard to read as well. I always resize the screen to a narrower column so I don’t get a headache from reading.

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