And how long should the lead be?
Quick! Which of these paragraphs would you rather read? This 11-word paragraph, from The New York Times?
Until then, Mr. Stratton waits and continues his daily balancing act.
Or this 146-word paragraph from an Amazon release?
Paragraphs are visual cues.
That’s the problem with long paragraphs: Readers make decisions about your message based not on what you said or on how well you said it but on what it looks like after you’ve said it.
“Long paragraphs are a visual predictor that a story won’t work.”
— Jon Ziomek, associate professor at the Medill School of Journalism
And paragraph length is one of your message’s most important visual cues.
“Long paragraphs are a visual predictor that a story won’t work,” says Jon Ziomek, associate professor at the Medill School of Journalism.
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 99 stories in a single edition of the paper. (We skipped the sports pages.) On that day, the Times’ paragraph length:
- Ranged from 9.6 to 67.5 words long
- Averaged 36 words per paragraph.
- Weighed in at a median of 37 words per paragraph.
Why are PR paragraphs so long?
PR pros: Take a tip from the Times and make your paragraphs short and sweet. Avoid long PR paragraphs like this 108-word paragraph from an SBA release:
And this 126-word paragraph from Fabletics:
Make ’em punchy.
While you’re at it, why not break up your copy with some super-short paragraphs like these from the Times, which weigh in at …
… 16 words
… 14 words
… 13 words
… 12 words
… 11 words
… 9 words
Now, that’s a paragraph that goes down easy.
What’s your average paragraph length?
How long should the lead paragraph be?
“‘In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth.’ The creation of the universe has a 10-word lead! So why do you need 40 words to say that your chief accountant has just completed the necessary certification? The answer, of course, is you don’t.”
— John McIntyre, copy desk chief of the Baltimore Sun
Yet PR pros keep cranking out leads like this 99-word one from an Amazon release:
How long should PR leads be?
Keep your release and pitch lead to 25 words — a couple of sentences — or so.
Longer, and it starts looking too thick to encourage readership.
Shorter, and news portals might not recognize it as a lead paragraph — or your release as a release. Google News, for instance, rejects releases that are nothing but bullet points and one-sentence paragraphs. Advisory releases often get rejected for this reason.
To avoid this, start with a “real” paragraph that includes at least two sentences.
Limit the background in the lead.
One way to take the lead out of the lead: Limit the background to no more than six words.
Background information is any parenthetical information — information that appears between commas, parentheses or dashes, like this phrase — including:
- People’s titles or ages after their names: (“Chris Smith, 29, proofreading guru, says …”)
- Boilerplate descriptions of your company or products (“RevUpReadership.com, a toolbox for writers, is now available …”)
- Stock exchange symbols (“Apple Inc. (AAPL) today announced that …”)
That doesn’t mean that these things aren’t important or that you won’t include them in your piece. Just be selective with what and how much you put in the lead. Then move the rest down.
You want your lead to clip along quickly. But background information slows the top of the story down.
If the verb is the story in news releases (and it is), the story (weak though it may be) in this Guardian release got buried under 28 words, 20 of them background information:
Now, that story is a far cry from the creation of the universe. But that lead is nearly six times as long.
Move contact information to the end.
Yes, we remember that the old paper press release format that started with your press contact. But your media contacts prefer to see that at the end of the release.
“I hate having to scroll past contact information and the obligatory company description just to get to the subject of the release,” says Ellen Newborne, Business Week marketing reporter. “Who has time to do that all day?”
Start with a bang.
And make the most of those first few words. Otherwise, you’ll lose journalists.
“If the copy doesn’t excite me within 20 words, I won’t read the rest of it,” says one editor quoted by Jack Appleman, president of SG Communications.
Here, by the way, are the first 20 words of that Amazon release:
Learn more about press releases writing.
Learn how to:
- Think Like a Reporter. Write releases that news outlets want to run and that your target audiences want to read. Before you send out the next product press release, make sure it focuses on your readers, not on your products or services.
- Think Outside the Pyramid. It’s time to say goodbye to the inverted pyramid. This press release template boosts reading, social media sharing and media outlet coverage.
- Write Snappy Sound bites. PR professionals love to include quotes whenever they write a press release. But journalists think PR quotes suck. Here’s what to do about that.
- Types of press releases. Before you send a press release, learn best practices for polishing all kinds of pieces — from case studies to product launch press releases.
- Write headlines that search engines love. Frontload your headline and more.