August 19, 2017

Out of sight, out of mind

Keep paragraphs even shorter for mobile screens

A paragraph that takes up four lines on a 30-inch monitor might well take eight lines — even more — on a mobile screen.

Paragraph length for mobile

Can you see me now? Readers struggle to read paragraphs on mobile devices when they can’t see the whole thing. Image by Cristina Gottardi

That causes a couple of problems:

1. It’s hard to read what you can’t see.

Part of your paragraph might not be visible on your reader’s 2-by-4-inch screen. If that’s the case, readers have to remember the first part of the paragraph as they read the end of it.

Human short-term memory is notoriously awful, which means we need to concentrate extra hard to remember what we can’t see.

But concentrating while reading on your smartphone is notoriously tough, especially with gate agents calling your boarding group, the checkout guy at Trader Joe’s asking if you have 11 cents or your doctor rudely interrupting your reading to ask a question during an office visit.

That may be one reason most readers continuously scroll to keep full paragraphs on their screens, found researchers from the German Research Center for Artificial Intelligence, Microsoft Bing and Technical University Kaiserslautern. In their study, they learned that:

  • 22% scrolled “pagewise”; that is, when they finished reading a page, they scrolled to the next.
  • 22% scrolled line by line, keeping the line they were reading at the top of the screen.
  • 55% of participants used “blockwise” scrolling to keep the paragraph they were reading at the top of the screen.

“It appears that this is caused by the general preference of these readers to align paragraphs so that they can be read in whole,” the researchers wrote.

But scrolling takes effort, and readers don’t like effort.

2. Readers skip long paragraphs.

And that’s another problem with reading long paragraphs on the small screen: Readers seek to avoid effort.

People make a visual decision about your piece based, not on what you’ve said or on how well you’ve said it, but on what it looks like after you’ve said it. Long paragraphs look hard to read, so people skip them.

The long and the short of it The New York Times’ 17-line paragraph on the mobile app (left) probably looked a lot shorter in the paper and on a desktop screen. Jeff Goins’ three- to four-line paragraphs on Buffer are much easier to read on a phone.

Small mobile screens compound that problem because they reduce column width, increasing line length.

The solution? Write short paragraphs.

But how short?

Follow the 1-2-3-4-5 Rule.

Use Jon Ziomek’s 1-2-3-4-5 rule. Ziomek, a professor at the Medill School of Journalism, suggests that your paragraph contain:

  • 1 main thought, expressed in
  • 2 to 3 short sentences, taking up no more than
  • 4 to 5 lines on the page

What happens at six lines? Your paragraph becomes more than an inch long. And an inch of type is too thick for most readers.

“You must cut the meat into little pieces,” Ziomek says.

Especially when you’re writing for mobile.

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