The quiet genius of the paragraph

Consider the humble paragraph. There it sits, silently, helping us to read, to comprehend, to become wiser and better people. Unnoticed, it never asks for gratitude or recognition. It just goes about its job, making communication a little better.

A paragraph lends structure to a piece of writing. The first sentence tells us the main idea of the paragraph. A good first sentence is brief, clear, and confident. Then the rest of the paragraph expands on that. So if we’re in a hurry, a paragraph helps us skim to the part we need. (Just for fun, try reading only the first sentences of this article.) But if we want to enjoy a leisurely read, a paragraph lets us reflect and explore in a way that a mere list or a series of lines never can.

Writing is a skill that rewards care and attention. In the past, few people, after completing their schooling, wrote more than the occasional form or letter. But now, we are all writers. More than ever before in humanity’s brief span on this earth, we share our thoughts, feelings, hopes, and ideas through the written medium. Is it not worth taking care to do it well?

Reading is hard, but good writing makes it a little easier. By going over what we’ve written, ensuring that it flows and fits together well, and structuring it cleanly, we’re showing our readers that we care about them. We’re doing what we can to help them grow in wisdom. Proper use of paragraphs signals to our readers that we have taken the time to reflect on what we have written and to organize our thoughts well.

For hundreds of years, the paragraph has remained essentially unchanged. Originating in the print era, it soon became a required aspect of any publishable writing. Over the years, paragraphs have grown shorter, but they remain just as essential.

There are two, and only two, correct ways to indicate a paragraph.

  1. An indent and no space.
  2. A space and no indent.

You will encounter other methods of indicating a paragraph break, but don’t copy bad examples. Using both space and indent is incorrect, since it overdetermines the break, imposing itself in an unnecessarily heavy-handed way. And using neither space nor indent—i.e., simply moving to the next line—is also incorrect, since it creates unnecessary ambiguity, especially when a line of text happens to fill the entire horizontal space. Of course, it is possible that in creative or graphic contexts other solutions may be suitable, but these rules should be followed in standard text.

While the two methods outlined above are both correct, they are not equivalent and may not be used in every context.

  1. In paginated environments, especially print, always use indent.
  2. In unpaginated environments, especially on a screen, spacing is preferred.

Why should spaced paragraphs never be used in print? Well, firstly there is the general problem that they waste space, which costs money. More importantly, they create ambiguity. Consider what happens when the last line of a paragraph happens to finish at the end of a page, and that same last line of text happens to fill the horizontal space. There is no way to tell whether the next page starts with a new paragraph or not. While this might seem to be a marginal case, in a book of any length it is likely to happen a few times.

The indented paragraph has been universally used by all good book typographers. It is one of those unsung innovations that is so innocuous you never notice it. Yet over hundreds of years, no-one has ever thought of a better system. This is why Jan Tschichold, the greatest typographer of the 20th century, described the indented paragraph as “one of the most precious legacies of typographical history”.

When typesetting for the screen, these problems don’t apply, and it has become standard to use spaced paragraphs rather than indented. I believe this is for a few reasons, partly technical, and partly aesthetic. On a technical level, it is a little trickier to manage indented paragraphs. Today this can be done easily, but we still keep to the habits acquired in simpler days. Nevertheless, such habits only stick around because they work. And the spaced paragraph works better in a web environment because it’s louder. The web is a noisier place than a book. The eye is drawn by images, banners, text blocks, asides, and by all the possibilities of what else you might be doing. The subtle indented paragraph, which served so faithfully in print, finds itself drowned out by louder signals. So, while it is not incorrect to use the indented paragraph, it is not easy to find examples of it on the modern web.

Let’s consider how paragraphs work on the web. Websites are coded using a specification called HTML (Hypertext Markup Language). HTML provides tags for indicating (“marking up”) the significant structures in text. When you load up a web page, the markup tells your browser what to do. The paragraph tag <p> has been part of HTML since the very first website was created by Tim Berners-Lee in 1992. Normally, of course, the markup is hidden, but you can see it by using right click and either “inspect” or “view source”. If you do that, you can see that this Discourse page uses the very same <p> tags that were first invented over a quarter of a century ago. In the dizzying world of tech, I find something reassuring about such rare islands of stability.

Here on Discourse, a paragraph is created simply by hitting Enter ⏎ twice. You don’t have to add the <p> tags yourself. They are inserted using the elegant system known as Markdown, invented by John Gruber in 2004. That’s all you need to do: Enter ⏎ twice. Nice, right? As you edit, you see the raw Markdown on the left and the “cooked” HTML on the right. A system this simple doesn’t just happen. There is a lot of hidden complexity going on that transforms one to the other. It’s the hard work of clever people that lets us write well-formatted text easily and intuitively.

Notice that not all digital environments work the same way. In your word processor or email client, you may be used to inserting a paragraph by hitting Enter ⏎ just once. That’s fine, it’s a different way of doing things. Be aware of how the different contexts work, and remember: if there’s no space or indent, it’s not a paragraph.

In typography, an unspaced and unindented new line is called a “line break” or “soft return”. The HTML tag is <br>, which is inserted in Markdown with a single Enter ⏎ . You should avoid the mistake of using <br> tags instead of <p>. Such carelessness in markup is a red flag for carelessness in writing. The line break should be reserved for a number of fairly specialized situations where a new line is not meant to be a new paragraph. I use them here on Discourse when typesetting verse, or placing original text and translation line-by-line, such as this:

Yā sā vācā nelā kaṇṇasukhā pemanīyā hadayaṅgamā porī bahujanakantā bahujanamanāpā tathārūpiṃ vācaṃ bhāsitā hoti.
They speak in a way that’s mellow, pleasing to the ear, kind, going to the heart, polite, likable and agreeable to many people.

Be kind to your readers by structuring your paragraphs well and formatting them correctly. Your readers are using their precious time to try to understand what you’re saying. They are under no obligation to you, and they have many other useful things they could be doing. By articulating your thoughts in a considerate and gracious manner, you show gratitude for their attention and encourage them to give your ideas due consideration.

In our age, when the ideals of civil and thoughtful discussion have never been valued less, the proper use of paragraphs is an act of redemption. I do not know what words can save us. But I do know that when they are written, they will be written in paragraphs.

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Summary

not necessarily, this may also be motivated by conceit, so the readers don’t think ‘what moron did write this piece of illegible crap?’ and alternatively ‘what a well spoken and reasonable person the one who wrote this!’

Today’s essay is just another reason why it is kind of exciting to be a spectator for the development of Sutta Central, and for the newly translated texts. I see Bhante Sujato’s motivation for celebrating and exercising the craft of the well designed paragraph (and of scholarship, translation and writing) as deriving from something akin to the Japanese concept of Shokunin. "Shokunin means not only having technical skills, but also implies an attitude and social consciousness. … The shokunin has a social obligation to work his/her best for the general welfare of the people. This obligation is both spiritual and material, in that no matter what it is, the shokunin’s responsibility is to fulfill the requirement.” – Tasio Odate

It means craftsmanship, however it is much more than that. One of the essential things is to make something for the joy of making it, and to do it carefully, beautifully, and to your utmost best of your ability. In Japan one can see this in the incredible delicate designs, or amazing machinery, and even the pride and perfection of even the cleaning staff. Similarly for a student, designer, or technologist, if you can have the Shokunin spirit you can learn to strive for innovation and make something, not only think of something, but make it, to as much as possible perfection.

So, today’s essay seems to me an affirmation of the spirit and actualization of Shokunin in Bhante’s work, and in the work of others, like Ajahn Brahmali, in this venture. It’s kind of great to be a witness to and beneficiary of this work, which has elevated many of our practices.

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Thanks so much. I’m not familiar with the Japanese idea of Shokunin, but it is a beautiful, and humbling, point of comparison.

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I do not know what words can save us.

Aren’t you in the process of translating them? :slightly_smiling_face:

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While this is true - and a great way to make good kamma while writing - it seems to me that clear writing is common sense if your purpose is to communicate. As you have said elsewhere, Bhante, anyone’s ability to understand a piece of text is heavily influenced by the style. Simple words, simple sentences, good paragraphs, and a clear and logical flow of ideas make all the difference. This is not about underestimating people’s intelligence, but about maximising the chances they will understand the message.

Sometimes people think that a complicated style is a sign of profundity. To me the opposite seems closer to the truth. If you understand you subject well, you will normally be able to express it in relatively simple terms. This, I believe, is part of the genius of the EBTs: they are normally easy to understand, yet profound. Every time you read a sutta you understand it, at least at some level, but that understanding also develops over time. The message is clear, but it takes time internalise it.

The biggest problem with clear writing is that it’s hard work. At least for me!

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