Lesson #221: How and When To Use Paragraph Breaks in Writing

💮 Spring is such a beautiful season! A few evenings ago, as I was walking in the garden, I saw the sunlight touching these blueberry flowers and had to stop to appreciate the beauty of the moment. I took a photograph of them of course, but nothing compares with the experience of seeing flowers like these absorbing the sun’s rays on a spring evening.

It reminded me of a childhood favourite, Frances Hodgson Burnett’s The Secret Garden (1911), in which the lonely orphan girl Mary Lennox (who has been living in a large, mostly empty house in the north of England) accidentally discovers a secret garden behind a wall that has been covered with ivy …

As I was re-reading the passage from the book that describes Mary’s moment of discovery, I was impressed by how well Frances Hodgson Burnett uses paragraph breaks in her writing.

Today I would like to highlight how and why she made those paragraph breaks, and how this division of paragraphs might be done similarly or differently in other kinds of writing.


Firstly, here is the passage from The Secret Garden that describes Mary’s magical experience:


📗 Mary Lennox had heard a great deal about Magic in her Ayah’s stories, and she always said that what happened almost at that moment was Magic.

One of the nice little gusts of wind rushed down the walk, and it was a stronger one than the rest. It was strong enough to wave the branches of the trees, and it was more than strong enough to sway the trailing sprays of untrimmed ivy hanging from the wall. Mary had stepped close to the robin, and suddenly the gust of wind swung aside some loose ivy trails, and more suddenly still she jumped toward it and caught it in her hand. This she did because she had seen something under it— a round knob which had been covered by the leaves hanging over it. It was the knob of a door.

She put her hands under the leaves and began to pull and push them aside. Thick as the ivy hung, it nearly all was a loose and swinging curtain, though some had crept over wood and iron. Mary’s heart began to thump and her hands to shake a little in her delight and excitement. The robin kept singing and twittering away and tilting his head on one side, as if he were as excited as she was. What was this under her hands which was square and made of iron and which her fingers found a hole in?

It was the lock of the door which had been closed ten years and she put her hand in her pocket, drew out the key and found it fitted the keyhole. She put the key in and turned it. It took two hands to do it, but it did turn.

And then she took a long breath and looked behind her up the long walk to see if anyone was coming. No one was coming. No one ever did come, it seemed, and she took another long breath, because she could not help it, and she held back the swinging curtain of ivy and pushed back the door which opened slowly— slowly.

Then she slipped through it, and shut it behind her, and stood with her back against it, looking about her and breathing quite fast with excitement, and wonder, and delight.

She was standing inside the secret garden.

– Frances Hodgson Burnett, The Secret Garden (1911) 📗


🖋️ Firstly, Frances Hodgson Burnett uses paragraph breaks to introduce suspense in her writing. As you can see, paragraphs can be of different lengths and, in some cases, it is even acceptable for a paragraph to be comprised of (made of) one sentence only if it is meaningful and substantial enough to stand on its own.

You may ask: what makes a paragraph? My answer: it should always express a single idea.

🖋️ Secondly, not only does each paragraph contain one main idea, but that main idea is found in a single sentence, usually the first sentence (or first part of the first sentence) of the paragraph. For example:

📗 ‘She put her hands under the leaves and began to pull and push them aside …’

📗 ‘It was the lock of the door which had been closed ten years and she put her hand in her pocket, drew out the key and found it fitted the keyhole …’

📗 ‘Then she slipped through it, and shut it behind her …’

– Frances Hodgson Burnett, The Secret Garden

👉 I recommend doing this when you are writing an essay, a letter, or indeed any kind of paragraph: ask yourself, what is the main idea here? and make a sentence containing just that idea.

🖋️ Thirdly, Hodgson Burnett often starts her paragraphs with a conjunction or an adverb.

Generally speaking it is better not to start a sentence or a paragraph with a conjunction because this gives the idea that it is a continuation of what went before (in Hodgson Burnett’s case this is acceptable because she is writing a narrative, a story with continuing events – but this would not be acceptable in formal or academic writing, for example). ⚠️

✍️ Conversely, it is all right to start a sentence with an adverb like ‘then’. In fact, there are times when you ought to open a paragraph with a suitable adverb because these kinds of words indicate the connecting or contrasting relationship between what went before and what is now being said.

✍️ Some good connecting or contrasting adverbs to use in these contexts (especially academic writing) include additionally, in addition, since, given that, conversely, however, moreover, furthermore, etc.


Given that Frances Hodgson Burnet was writing a narrative (story), is it all right for English language students to do exactly what she did?

My answer is ‘yes and no’! Just as we observed in her writing, you should aim to:

  • ✏️ Have a main idea per paragraph
  • ✏️ Express the dominant idea of the paragraph in its main sentence (if possible at the beginning of the paragraph)
  • ✏️ Use an adverb at the beginning (or if writing informally, you may use a conjunction) to show the relationship between the paragraphs.

Now that we are clear on what you should do, here are a few points of what you should do differently.

  • ✏️ Make sure that each sentence in the paragraph is neither too long nor too short. Remember that each sentence should have a small idea, thought, or just a few details that contribute to the whole paragraph’s general idea. Avoid trying to squeeze in a lot of information into a sentence, because that is what a paragraph is for – it includes various informational sentences that collectively (together, as a collective) make the paragraph’s main idea clear to the reader.
  • ✏️ If you are writing an academic essay or exercise, try to end your paragraphs with a sentence that analyses, assesses, critiques, or contributes to the paragraph’s idea. In other words, this final sentence should show a new yet relevant perspective on what the paragraph contained.
  • ✏️ If you are refering to a person or object regularly in your writing, try to introduce them by name at least once in the course of a paragraph. For example, Frances Hodgson Burnett began one of her paragraphs above with ‘She …’. This was acceptable because she had just mentioned ‘Mary Lennox’ by name in the sentence before (even if in another, separate paragraph) and also Hodgson Burnett was writing a narrative (a kind of writing that has a continuous flow). However, if we were writing this same text formally or academically, we should write out ‘Mary Lennox’ or even ‘Mary’ on the very first occasion that she appears in the paragraph. After doing that once, it is fine for us to refer to this person simply as ‘she’ – personal pronouns are useful for avoiding repetition once the person/subject of the sentence has been clearly identified.

These are our handful of observations on why and how you need to use paragraph breaks in your writing – I hope they have been helpful! 💮

by J. E. Gibbons

English language tutor and researcher at 'Learn English Through Literature' (2024)