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Cut it down: Readers skip long paragraphs


June 5, 2013

Readers take measure of — and make decisions about — your copy based on how it looks. One of the most important visual cues that we give our readers is paragraph length.

“Paragraphing is… a matter of the eye,” wrote British grammarian H.W. Fowler in his style guide, “Modern English Usage.” “A reader will address himself more readily to his task if he sees from the start that he will have breathing spaces from time to time than if what is before him looks like a marathon course.”

A story packed with too many long paragraphs looks thick and off-putting. In fact, readers are likely to skip even a single lengthy paragraph.

If your paragraph is too long, then you might as well stamp it with red ink: “Don’t bother reading this.” To make your copy accessible to readers, you need to ask, “How long is too long?”

How long is too long?

How long should your paragraphs be? When you’re writing for:

Print: Use Ziomek’s 1-2-3-4-5 rule. That is, make sure your paragraph contains: 1 idea, expressed in 2 to 3 short sentences, taking 4 to 5 lines on the page.

The screen: People read more of a Web page when the paragraphs are short, according to The Poynter Institute’s 2004 Eyetrack III study.

That isn’t surprising to anyone who’s studied paragraph readability: Long paragraphs repel readers. However, what’s surprising is how the researchers defined a short online paragraph: just one or two sentences. Make it hyper short for the hyper world.

The mobile screen: Skip paragraphs entirely. In fact, you should even avoid sentences when possible. The best practice for using mobile apps and sites is to limit copy to buttons big enough to click easily with your fingers.

How to shorten paragraphs

Are your paragraphs too long? Here are three ways to condense them:

  1. Use the return key more often. This may be the easiest thing you can do to make your copy more readable.

    I know, I know. Your third-grade teacher taught you that paragraphs were one unit of thought. They are. Just as your entire piece covers one idea, your sentences are units of thought and your words each express a single idea — even each syllable conveys meaning.

    You just need to see your thoughts as smaller, more discrete units.
     
  2. Tweak it. Look for ways to shorten your paragraphs by cutting sentences, phrases and words.
     
  3. Break it up with bullets. If you have a series of three or more items, then break them out of the paragraph in a bulleted or numbered list. Bullets not only break up a paragraph, they also cut words by eliminating transitions.

Brief paragraphs encourage readership. But use your judgment: Some paragraphs can be a little longer, while others can be much shorter. Varying the length of your paragraphs will add rhythm to your story as well as increase readership.

Believe me: It works.

Copyright © 2013 Ann Wylie. All rights reserved.

Catch your readers

Want more techniques for writing copy that gets the word out? Join Ann Wylie for “Writing That Sells,” a PRSA professional development seminar, on June 6 in San Francisco.

 

Ann Wylie Ann Wylie works with communicators who want to reach more readers and with organizations that want to get the word out. To learn more about her training, consulting or writing and editing services, contact her at ann@WylieComm.com
Email: ann at WylieComm.com



Comments

Alex says:

Thanks for this! It's going to help a lot when I go back and do the second draft of my book.

July 24, 2014

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