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Style Manual

Paragraphs

One idea per paragraph helps users absorb information. Organise them under headings to help users scan the content. Write short paragraphs, each with a topic sentence.

Limit each paragraph to one idea

People find it easier to understand content when a paragraph contains only one idea or theme. Don’t introduce a new idea in the middle or at the end of a paragraph. Start a new paragraph instead.

Introduction or summary paragraphs recap ideas covered in the content. Group sentences in these paragraphs by theme – for example, to help users understand how the content is structured.

Put paragraphs in the order that makes sense to the user

Order paragraphs in a logical sequence, such as:

  • steps in a transaction
  • the order of importance
  • cause then effect
  • problem then solution
  • pros then cons.

This helps people follow related ideas or steps in a sequence.

Expand on the heading in the first paragraph

The first paragraph under a heading helps people decide if they’ve found the information they need. Search engines also use first paragraphs when analysing content.

Use the first paragraph to make the purpose of your content easier to find in searches. It should include a topic sentence and summarise the following paragraphs.

You can use first paragraphs to improve long-form content, such as reports. First paragraphs can summarise the main points in each section. 

Copy and paste all the first paragraphs together to compile a summary of your content. If you’re missing any main points, rewrite some of your first paragraphs.

Keep most paragraphs to 2 or 3 sentences

Short paragraphs help people understand content. The ideal length depends on what you are writing:

  • Media releases and news articles have only one or 2 sentences in a paragraph.
  • Content designed for mobile screens has no more than 2 or 3 sentences in a paragraph.
  • In reports and other long-form content, a limit of 6 sentences in a paragraph is acceptable.

If your paragraphs or sentences are too long, you might be trying to say too much in one place.

Consider starting a new paragraph or using an itemised list. Make sure the items relate to each other and are grammatically parallel.

Digital Service Standard requirements

Use responsive design methods to make sure users can read the content on any device. Short paragraphs are critical in responsive design: Criterion 6. Consistent and responsive design.

Many people do not use a desktop computer or printed material to access government services and information. Test your content on a mobile device first.

Write clear sentences using fewer than 25 words

All sentences should use plain language. Even in technical documents, keep sentences to fewer than 25 words. Long sentences often cause long paragraphs.

Sentences in a paragraph develop the main idea from a topic sentence by:

  • giving examples or details
  • comparing or contrasting
  • showing cause and effect
  • drawing conclusions from evidence.

In complex content, you might need to use a paragraph or more for each of these points.

Introduce the main idea in the topic sentence

The first sentence in each paragraph should be the topic sentence. The topic sentence helps people follow the meaning of your writing as they skim content.

Each paragraph should contain only the information that relates to the topic sentence.

To write an effective topic sentence, write it in the active voice. This approach makes the main idea in the paragraph the grammatical subject of the topic sentence.

Write this

Our rapid response team began operating in 2019 as a result of the 2018 stakeholder survey. The survey showed it took too long to repair damage.

Not this

A stakeholder survey in 2018 revealed dissatisfaction with the time taken to repair damage. Our rapid response team began operating in 2019.

[This paragraph is about the rapid response team, not the stakeholder survey. The grammatical subject of the topic sentence should be ‘the team’, not ‘the survey’.]

Take care if starting a paragraph with a pronoun. Make sure to mention the noun in each paragraph before using the pronoun that substitutes the noun.

Remember, users might only read one paragraph. Don’t assume that users will know what ‘it’ or ‘they’ refers to.

Release notes

The digital edition is based on the material in the sixth edition. It gives more advice on how to put paragraphs together, what belongs in a paragraph and when to start a new one. It fleshes out the advice on topic sentences. It does not give information about numbered paragraphs.

The sixth edition focused on being succinct and on the length of paragraphs.

The digital edition also builds on the Content Guide, which recommended using short, simple paragraphs of 2 or 3 sentences containing one idea.

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References

4 Syllables (2014) Writing paragraphs: 10 tips for web writers, 4 Syllables website, accessed 30 May 2019.

Content Design London (2020) ‘Mobiles and tablets’, Content Design London readability guidelines, Content Design London website, accessed 30 May 2020.

Dixon JC and Bolitho B (2005–2019) Report writing, Centre for Continuing Education, Australian National University, Canberra.

Flann E, Hill B and Wang L (2014) The Australian Editing Handbook, Wiley Milton.

Moran K (20 March 2016) ‘How chunking helps content processing’, Nielsen Norman Group, accessed 30 May 2020.

Mc Kenzie J (2011) The editor’s companion, 2nd edn, Cambridge University Press, Melbourne.

Oxford University Press (2016) New Oxford style manual, Oxford University Press, Oxford.

United States Government (n.d.) ‘Have a topic sentence’, Plain language guidelines, plainlanguage.gov, accessed 30 May 2020.

University of Chicago (2017) Chicago manual of style, 17th edn, University of Chicago Press, Chicago.

This page was updated Tuesday 22 September 2020.

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