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