Polish your paragraphs

Encourage readership by making them tight

When researchers for The Poynter Institute looked into what makes people read online, they found that one key predictor of attention was paragraph length. Researchers wrote:

“The bottom line is that stories with shorter paragraphs got more than twice as many overall eye fixations than those with longer paragraphs. These data suggest that the longer-paragraph format discourages reading and that short-paragraph format overwhelmingly encourages reading.”

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

1. Hit return more often.

This may be the easiest single thing you can do to cut the clutter in your copy.

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, your words each express a single idea — heck, even the syllables each convey a concept.

You just need to see your thoughts as smaller, more discrete units. David A. Fryxell, former editor of Writer’s Digest, recommends that you hit return when you need to:

  • Pause
  • Elaborate
  • Change topic
  • Make an aside
  • Present a quote
  • Shift time or place
  • Emphasize a key point
  • Explain a subsidiary idea
  • Offer an opposing viewpoint
  • Change the rhythm of your piece
  • Move to the next item on your list

Great guidelines. But the only real rule is that you place your curser after a period before you hit return.

2. Tweak it.

Look for ways to shorten your paragraph by cutting sentences, phrases and words.

3. Break it with bullets.

If you have a series of three or more items, break them out of the paragraph in a bulleted or numbered list. Bullets not only break up a paragraph, but they also cut words by eliminating the need for transitions.

That’s especially important online, where readers skim even more than they do in print. In one test, usability expert Jakob Nielsen made a webpage 47 percent more usable when he made the page more scannable with subheads, bold-faced lead-ins and bullets.

The Times is no fluffball news outlet. Can’t you make your paragraphs as inviting as the Times?

  • Cut Through the Clutter

    Measure, monitor and manage clarity with a cool (free!) tool

    Would your message be twice as good if it were half as long? The research says yes: The shorter your piece, the more likely readers are to read your message, understand it and make good decisions based on it.

    Cut Through the Clutter - Ann Wylie's clear-writing workshop on April 17-18 in New York

    But most communicators (and, let’s be fair, their reviewers) ignore the research and keep piling on the paragraphs. The result? “You’re not more informed,” writes Tom Rosenstiel, former media critic for the Los Angeles Times. “You’re just numbed.”

    Analyze your message for 27 readability metrics and leave with targets, tips and techniques for improving each one.

    So how long is too long? What’s the right length for your piece? Your paragraphs? Your sentences? Your words?

    At Cut Through the Clutter — our two-day hands-on clear-writing master class on April 17-18 in New York — you’ll run your message through a cool (free!) tool to measure, monitor and manage readability. You'll find out how to:

    • Analyze your message for 27 readability metrics — and leave with quantifiable targets, tips and techniques for improving each one.
    • Increase reading, understanding and sharing with five techniques for cutting your copy significantly.
    • Avoid discombobulating readers. Leave this workshop with 11 metrics for reducing sentence length and increasing comprehension.
    • Stop getting skipped. Find out how long is too long — and leave with three ways to shorten paragraphs.
    • Eliminate multisyllabic pileups from your copy. They’re the No. 1 predictor of poor readability.


3 Responses to “Polish your paragraphs”
  1. With havin so much content and articles do you ever run into any problems of plagorism
    or copyright violation? My website has a lot of unique content I’ve either authored myself or outsourced but it appears a lot of it is popping it up all over the web without my authorization. Do you know any methods
    to help protect against content from being stolen? I’d certainly appreciate it.

  2. annwylie says:

    We haven’t had much trouble, Jual, but when we do, I have a lawyer whose kids have all gone to Harvard on the copyright violators. Good luck


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