Hit return more often
Believe it or not, this is an actual paragraph that appeared in an actual publication:
It weighs in at 465 words. It’s the first paragraph in the story. And it appears in an online publication. Can you imagine reading this honker on your phone?
What’s wrong with long paragraphs?
The problem with long paragraphs is that they look hard to read. And because they look hard to read, people don’t read them.
“Long paragraphs are a visual predictor that a story won’t work.”
— Jon Ziomek, associate professor at the Medill School of Journalism
That’s right: Readers skip long paragraphs. So if your paragraph is too long, you might as well stamp on it in red ink, “Don’t bother reading this paragraph. Our lawyers made us add this stuff. We formatted it this way on purpose so you’d skip it.”
So how long is too long for a paragraph?
Write like the Times.
We turned to The New York Times to find out. We analyzed all of the stories in a single edition of the Times. (We skipped the sports pages.) On this day, the paper’s paragraphs:
- Ranged from 9.6 to 67.5 words
- Averaged 36 words per paragraph.
- Weighed in at a median of 37 words per paragraph.
Hey, if it works for the Times, it works for me. Let’s aim for a rule of thumb of 36 to 37 words per paragraph. An occasional 9- or 68-word paragraph? That works for me, too.
And what about the number of sentences per paragraph? The Times’ paragraphs:
- Ranged from 1.3 to 9 sentences per paragraph.
- Averaged 2.4 sentences per paragraph.
- Weighed in at a median of two sentences per paragraph.
Are you having flashbacks to your third grade English class? Are you remembering your teacher telling you that a paragraph includes five sentences: a topic sentence, three developing sentences and a concluding sentence?
That’s academic writing. This is marketing writing. Your audience members are never going to read those 200-word sentences. (Remember: Your teachers got paid to read what you wrote.)
So how do you turn longer paragraphs into shorter paragraphs?
Count ’em and cut ’em.
To craft short paragraphs:
1. Hit return more often. This may be the easiest single thing you can do to cut through 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:
- 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 cursor 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 break up a paragraph, but they also cut words by eliminating the need for transitions.
Vary the length.
Some paragraphs can be a little longer. Some should be much shorter. To give your copy visual interest, vary the length of your paragraphs.
1. Try a one-sentence paragraph. Insert a super-short paragraph when you need to:
- Wind up
- Get started
- Make a transition
- Emphasize a point
- Set off a punchline
- Add drama and rhythm to your copy
- Provide a visual break to make your piece look easier to read
Try a very short paragraph after a very long one. “A four-word paragraph after one of 64 words can pack a punch,” writes Roy Peter Clark, Poynter Institute senior scholar.
Try it. It works.
2. Don’t hit return after every period. But don’t get carried away with tiny paragraphs. The secret to super-short paragraphs is to use them like a spice: A pinch of cumin can make a meal more savory, but I don’t want to eat a plateful of the stuff.
The one-sentence-per-paragraph convention grew out of the use of the telegraph and continued through the days of hot type, when it was easier to cut a whole paragraph than it was to excise a sentence from a paragraph, writes newspaper writing coach Paula LaRocque.
3. Mix it up. Are your paragraphs all the same length? Jacqui Banaszynski, journalism professor at University of Missouri School of Journalism and editing fellow and visiting faculty at The Poynter Institute, offers this quick tip for making your copy more rhythmic:
“Print your copy out in columns and look at it. If your paragraphs are all the same length, you’re probably not getting enough rhythm into your piece.”