The One-Sentence Paragraph: A Bad Idea

I have been reading more social media stuff than usual lately, and I’ve noticed something. A lot of people write posts that are strings of one-sentence paragraphs, one after the other. Some writers, with particularly acute cases of this disease, will write entire posts consisting of nothing but this stuff. Like this:

I woke up.

I went into the kitchen and made coffee.

I brushed my teeth.

And I thought about the driveway.

This is a very bad idea. I wish they wouldn’t do it. You shouldn’t do it.

No, that’s not quite what I mean to say. Let me try again.

If you write things that are strings of one-sentence paragraphs, I hate you. I want to roll you in honey, and stake you out in the desert next to a nest of fire ants, and leave you there.

I think I understand why people do this. It’s a way to create tension, drama. Not a very good way, but still. The repetitive rhythm of this kind of writing does result in a kind of primitive energy. I suppose it works well if you are delivering, say, a speech to a stadium full of people. You know:

Speak a sentence.

Wait for cheering to die down.

Speak another sentence.

More frenzied cheering.

But in a piece of writing like, say, a blog post, this is a cheap trick. It irritates your reader. And worse, it also demonstrates that you don’t have enough confidence in your ideas or your writing to calm down and let your ideas speak for themselves.

Good writing is interesting partially because of things like word choice, punctuation, and so on. But it’s also interesting because you actually have something to say. Most of the piece that use the one-sentence paragraph method don’t have a lot to say.

Think of the one-sentence approach as being like PowerPoint. PowerPoint is banned at a lot of companies like, say, Amazon, which you may have heard of. It’s banned because it oftens serves to conceal a lack of thought. Even if what you’re saying is vapid, idiotic or obvious, PowerPoint makes it seem organized and meaningful. It’s a great framework to hide behind.

The same thing is true of the string of one-sentence paragraphs. Not only do these often disguise a lack of ideas, but they also bespeak a misunderstanding of rhythm. Writing is like music. Good writing has a rhythm. A beat, if you will. But the key to making that work is variety. The steady, unrelenting, plodding, hellish quality of the one-sentence paragraph approach has zero variety, and it’s less a rhythm than a machinelike, repetitive cadence.

My late mother, discussing assisted living communities when she herself was eligible for one, declined to live in such a place because, as she said, they were nothing but old people. She said, brilliantly, that, “Old people are like Scotch. You have to mix them with something else.” She was right.

Writing works the same way. Good writing combines long and short sentences, silly and serious ideas, all kinds of different things. That’s what makes it fun and interesting and ultimately, good.

So I leave you with this. William Manchester was a historian who wrote a massive biography of Winston Churchill and also, a lesser-known book about the Middle Ages. This is the end of the introduction to that book. This is how you mix up long and short sentences. This is brilliant. Be like this: