I’ve noticed something about my writing recently, a struggle that I’ve been having but have not fully acknowledged. The problem is this: I’m too focused on the form of the words on the page.
In school I was taught, as I imagine you were taught, to write essays in a certain way, and that there are certain rules to how writing should be formulated. Although many of these precepts have no relevance to writing fiction, one “rule” that has stuck with me is about paragraph length. I was always taught that paragraphs needed to be at least three sentences, which after years of writing I was able to associate with a certain size of a block of words on the page of a Word document. Though I don’t consciously go through all of my stories and make sure each paragraph is three sentences, there are certain length standards that I have found I subconsciously apply in order to make the page “look” right. Yet as I’ve studied the writing of other authors that I enjoy reading, I’ve found that they often will use paragraphs that are much shorter than mine.
This is less obvious than it might seem, because the formatting in a book is different from the default formatting in a Word document. Although it looks like text on a book’s page is small, there is a publishing standard of about 250 words per page, which is in contrast to the ~500 words that fit on a standard Word document’s page. It seems like a small thing, and I never paid it much mind, but I’ve been dissatisfied recently with how my writing flows, feeling as I go back and reread it that the text is too blocky and stilted, so I decided to look a little more closely at how other authors format their writing.
What this led me to realize is that my subconscious adherence to the appearance of a “proper paragraph” was keeping my writing from flowing as well as it should. As I write, I find myself pausing and trying to come up with more information to include in each paragraph so that it looks right on the page, even if it doesn’t need more information. So I’m going to try an experiment; I’m going to start changing the formatting on the documents on which I’m working to reflect something closer to how a book would look. My goal is to shake myself out of this focus on making my writing look like an essay, even though I’m writing stories. Old habits die hard, as they say.
Partly, I blame my engineering temperament. I like numbers, and having numbers to use to gauge progress and as guidelines. Having the “right” number of sentences in a paragraph, or the “right” number of words in a chapter is important to me, even if on a conscious level I acknowledge that this is speculative fiction writing, and the only real gauge of “right” is if it works for the story. We’ll have to see how this experiment affects the second season of Blood Magic.
6 thoughts on “Lengths and Forms”