Sometimes we forget what a finite thing a text is. What a simple machine. One word follows another on a line, separated by spaces and sundry punctuation. At the right margin, the line “softly” returns to the left and otherwise continues. At the end of the paragraph the line ends abruptly; there’s a tab indent or blank line and a new line, a new paragraph, begins below. That is, in a certain sense, the sentences in a paragraph are all on the same “line”, the “soft returns” at the margins are arbitrary. Only the “hard return” at the end of the paragraph is significant. The line must end there, while all the other returns depend merely on the dimensions of the page or the viewing window. You decide where the paragraph ends. Your typesetter or browser decides when the line merely “wraps”.
Ideal readers of your text understand this and let each word in the paragraph pass through their minds at roughly the same speed, not bothered by the right margin. At the end of the paragraph, however, they may take a break and reflect. They will, if perhaps barely consciously and only for a second or two, try to decide what just happened to them. What did the preceding 143 words mean? What did the author just tell me? What was this experience about?
When you’re writing a paragraph you’re stringing words together that will occupy about one minute of the reader’s attention. You are in complete control of what will happen to your reader during that minute. You can assume the reader has protected herself from distractions. You are not responsible for accommodating her habit of multitasking in front of the television. Nor do you need to engage with the extraneous input from fellow train travelers or the children in the room upstairs or even the personal memories you unwittingly stir with the mention of a bicycle built for two. The reader has given you her attention and you don’t have to work to hold it. Just as you don’t have to worry about what happens at the margin, where the line gently wraps, you don’t have to worry about what happens beyond the margin, outside the text, where the tapestry of experience wefts and warps. Let the reader worry about all of that. At this moment, the main thing is happening on the page in front of her.
Even Proust has “lost” a reader or two in the middle of a paragraph. But the serious reader does not blame the author so long as the words seem deliberately chosen and carefully arranged. She just goes back and tries again. A good paragraph makes the reader feel that her time has been respected, that any difficulty was necessary. A serious reader will not stand for willful obfuscation or obvious insouciance. If she has to look up a word or two, so be it; but if it turns out that the same meaning could have been conveyed in simpler language she will wonder what the writer is trying to hide or how much he cares.
Imagine that for each paragraph, each line of no more than 200 words, your reader gives you one minute of their attention. How many minutes of work do you have to do to rightfully earn that minute of their time? My suggestion is twenty-seven. The reader should feel as though you’ve spent at least 27 times longer constructing the line than she spent letting it pass through her mind. It is understood that writing is hard because reading should be easy and this difficulty is respected by giving you all that time to write the paragraph, not to mention as many attempts as you like. Every time you put a paragraph before a reader you are saying, “Give me a minute, I promise you won’t regret it.” Do your very best to keep that promise.