9

Lately I've noticed some news articles using (usually) a single sentence per paragraph. Some examples:

http://www.bbc.com/news/science-environment-29341850 http://www.stuff.co.nz/world/asia/61477320/five-years-in-bali-jail-possible-for-nz-man.html

I was taught in school to use about 3-4, and while I'm sure there are exceptions it seems strange to me to see a single sentence per paragraph, and it sounds kind of stilted when I read it in my head.

Is there a modern change of thought on sentences-per-paragraph, or is this to achieve a certain effect?

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  • Aside from all the very good answers below, people's attention spans are really short these days. Sometimes one sentence is all they can handle in one bite. – Joe Sep 30 '14 at 22:42
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While you may see this as a recent change in news reporting, it is neither restricted to the press nor a new development, though the nature of online media consumption may have promoted it.

There is no requirement that paragraphs be of a certain length or contain a certain number of sentences. Those considerations, as well as whether or not to organize ideas into paragraphs in the first place, depend on the medium. Single-sentence paragraphs can be found in works written centuries ago, and in literature, political writing, technical writing, and every other sort.


News writing

I would accept that news may be particularly susceptible to the phenomenon. In expository writing as taught in schools, information is presented piece by piece, supporting a thesis and leading up to a conclusion. News reporting, on the other hand, organizes information by relative newsworthiness, with the most striking information presented in the lede— no thesis, no conclusion. In a story written in the inverted pyramid style, one could cut off the story at the end of most paragraphs and remain cohesive. Information of subordinate newsworthiness is pushed into later paragraphs, and if only one sentence of information is worthy to sit at a certain place, so be it.

Newspaper articles (and their online equivalents) are not essays, and have not been for a very long time. If you look up newspapers from the mid-20th century, you can see that articles opening with one- or two-sentence paragraphs is hardly new.


Online writing

These materials being presented online is another factor. Reading from a computer screen is slower and more fatiguing than reading from a printed page: long line lengths on screen that make it difficult to follow multiple lines of text; the flicker of CRT monitors and the insomnia-promoting blue of LED backlights increase eye fatigue; poor screen resolution makes characters more difficult for the brain to comprehend.

Therefore, various guidelines for writing on the web emphasize brevity (short sentences and paragraphs) and chunking (organizing material in to small groups with a headline, for easy scanning while scrolling). It is easier to keep your place in text if there are only three vertical lines to scan, not ten. And we are more likely to remain on a website which is easier to read. Online forum participants perpetually complain about the failure of new members to break up their text, and the expression TL;DR is lobbed against responses such as the one I am composing right now.

  • tl;dr and by the way very useful. Professional web typography can help a lot and many 'non-boring', legible fonts are available as web fonts, colors, line-height and length can be adjusted in CSS, just like different font sizes for different screen sizes can be set to enhance readability. I often find that a cluttered page with neglected typography is a pain to skim, while some sites excel at creating pages that are aesthetically pleasing in terms of typography. – Drunken Master Mar 8 '15 at 19:03
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There are two reasons. First, as described in this answer, news articles are written as an inverted pyramid and are designed to be cut at any paragraph break and still work. In the late stages of newspaper assembly, the editor making the decisions about what goes where and making it all fit is not going to read and decide -- he's going to lop it off at a paragraph break. So you need paragraph breaks at "steps" in content-importance, and the more a writer does this the easier the editor's job is.

Second, journalism style developed in the context of print newspapers. A typical newspaper has 4-6 columns of text on a page, each column being fairly narrow. You want to avoid the "wall of text" where a story goes for several inches without paragraph breaks, because readers facing that tend to bail. This tends to push for shorter paragraphs (by word- or sentence-count), so that the final newspaper presentation will still be usable. While the constraints are different for online news read on desktop computers, two points: (a) some people read on phones (as noted in this answer), and (b) the same story has to work for print and online because the editor doesn't want to double his work. So if the online media site has a corresponding print edition, it's going to tend to follow this constraint.

This answer is based on what I learned working on, and ultimately being editor-in-chief of, a student newspaper in college (where I did late-stage editing with an X-acto knife -- "cut" was literal). I do not have professional journalism experience.

4

Single sentence paragraphing is perfectly acceptable, it is a stylistic choice. It's common in online journalism and tabloids. It's intended use is to make reading easier. Online newspaper articles and blogs are frequently viewed on mobile phones which make webpages look very narrow when compared to a typical computer monitor. If written this way then at least one sentence is able to be read before needing to scroll down. It's also used to keep readers interested by using single sentences rather than lengthy paragraphs. See this blog article for more info.

  • 2
    +1 And long before journalism went online, the narrow columns of most newspapers had a similar effect. – StoneyB Sep 25 '14 at 0:03
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All news reporting and most journalistic writing, in general, is supposed to follow the guidelines of AP Style, as stated in the AP Stylebook. So, as a previous answer stated, yes, it is a stylistic choice, and it's a journalistic standard. Typically, short paragraphs in reporting make the news easier for readers to digest and the entire article easier to read in full. Check out https://www.apstylebook.com/ to read more about it.

  • Welcome to Writers.SE! If you have a moment please take the tour and visit the help center to learn more about the site. Have fun! – Secespitus Jan 5 '18 at 10:04
0

None of the previous responses even hint to the fact of automated writing. A growing amount of news is written by an algorithm today. The original facts are data which are then put into sentences by a machine. This obviously saves a lot of money and allows for automated A/B testing of news. (If we change that sentence there what will be the impact on reading?)

It's a lot easier to put data into short paragraphs that have no connection to each other than to connect the sentences in a meaningful way.

Note: I'm not a writer or journalist, but a software engineer.

  • Can you provide some source on this statement? First time I hear of such a thing. (Not saying it's not true - just haven't heard of it.) – Galastel Feb 16 at 11:03

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