Do readers skip your paragraphs? | October 2009

“Long paragraphs are a visual predictor that a story won’t work.”
— Jon Ziomek,
associate professor at the medill School of Journalism

Are readers skipping your paragraphs?

Readers make at-a-glance decisions about your copy based on paragraph length

How long is too long?
When it comes to paragraphs, the shorter the paragraph, the better, according to The Poynter Institute’s Eyetrack III study.
“The bottom line is that stories with shorter paragraphs got more than twice as many overall eye fixations than those with longer paragraphs,” the Poynter researchers wrote. “These data suggest that the longer-paragraph format discourages reading and that short-paragraph format overwhelmingly encourages reading.”
That’s not really surprising to anyone who’s studied the effects of paragraph length in print or online: People tend to skip long paragraphs in either medium. What is surprising is what constitutes a “short” paragraph on the Web.
The Eyetrack researchers measured this way:

  • Short paragraphs: one or two sentences long
  • Medium paragraphs: up to six sentences long
  • Long paragraphs: up to 18 sentences long

Bottom line: Online, hit return every paragraph or two.


Source: Ann Wylie, Cut Through the Clutter, Wylie Communications Inc., 2005

“Paragraphing is … a matter of the eye. 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.”
— H.W. Fowler, British grammarian, in Modern English Usage

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Cut Through the Clutter

Make every piece your write easier to read and understand

Is your copy easy to read? According to communication experts, that’s one of the two key questions people ask to determine whether to read a piece — or toss it.
Fortunately, academics have tested and quantified what makes copy easy to read — from paragraph length to sentence length to word length. Unfortunately, that research virtually never makes it out of the ivory tower and into the hands of writers who could actually apply it.
But now you can get “the numbers” you need to measure and improve your copy’s readability. In a new Shel Holtz Webinar, I’ll teach you to Cut Through the Clutter to help your audience members read, understand, remember and act on your messages.

Specifically, you’ll learn:

  • How long is too long: For your paragraphs? Your sentences? Your words?
  • Three ways to shorten your copy — and which is the most effective
  • How to avoid overwhelming your readers with information — because the more data people get, according to studies, the worse their decisions become
  • How to cut your copy before you’ve even written the first word
  • How to avoid causing your reader to skip your paragraphs
  • How to make your copy look easier to read
  • When it makes sense to use jargon — and when to avoid it at all costs
  • How to run the “Hey! Did you hear?” test on your copy
  • A tool you can use (you probably already have it, but you might not know it) to quantifiably improve your copy’s readability
  • Research you can use to sell your approvers on shorter, clearer writing

Once you’ve completed this webinar, you’ll be able to make every piece you write or edit clearer and more concise.

About Shel Holtz Webinars

I’m so excited to work with Shel on his webinar series. I’m a client, as well as a trainer, of Shel’s webinars, and I’ve always been surprised and delighted with how much I get out of the programs — with very little investment of time or money on my part.

Shel Holtz Webinars consist of five lectures, with a new lecture posted each Monday for five weeks. Lectures present a mix of text, audio and, sometimes, video … but all you need to participate is your Web browser. Best of all, you can drop in whenever it’s convenient for you — there’s no place you have to be on any particular day or time.

If you haven’t participated in one of Shel’s webinars before, check out this introductory video

Register now

“People don’t read enough. And what reading we do is cursory, without absorbing the subtleties and nuances that lie deep within…. Wow — you’ve stopped paying attention, haven’t you? People can’t even read a coffee cup without drifting off.”
— David Shore, producer of “House,” quoted on a Starbuck’s cup

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How to build buzz

Dan Zarrella drills down on the science of retweets

How do you create a message that goes viral on Twitter?

Just ask Dan Zarrella. The HubSpot viral marketing scientist spent nine months analyzing 5 million tweets and 40 million retweets to find what makes some messages travel the world while others just stay home on the couch.

In his new report, “The Science of Retweets,” he shares these tips:

1. Make it all about me.

The most retweeted words in the English language, according to Zarrella’s research: “You.”

2. Punctuate.

Some 98 percent of retweets contain some form of punctuation, compared with 86 percent of normal tweets. So don’t forget the colons, periods, commas and hyphens. But do forget semicolons — “the only unretweetable punctuation mark,” according to Zarrella.

3. Don’t use TinyURL.

Newer, shorter URL-shortening services — such as and — are more likely to get retweeted than older, longer services like TinyURL.

Why retweets matter

So … who cares about retweeting?

You should, Zarrella says. That’s because we can learn from retweets what traits are more likely to make other messages go viral, as well.

“Ideological epidemics have made and lost fortunes, they have saved countless lives and caused horrific wars, they have birthed and destroyed nations,” he writes. “Clearly the most powerful weapon known to man would be the ability to create powerful mental viruses at will.”

Get the word out with social media

Would you like to learn more ways to make your tweets, blog postings and nanocontent more relevant, valuable and interesting? If so, please join me at PRSA’s Nov. 12 teleseminar, “How to write for social media.” You’ll learn how to craft copy that gets the word out via social media.

Specifically, you’ll learn how to:

  • Use the 70-20-10 rule for engaging your followers, plus other tips for making sure your status updates are welcome guests, not intrusive pests.
  • Pass the “Who cares?” test — and four other techniques for becoming a resource, not a bore, on social media.
  • Get retweeted: Five steps for expanding your influence and reach on Twitter
  • Tweet like the FBI. Write dramatic, compelling status tweets.
  • Draw people in with nanocontent: Convince blog visitors to click — in 11 characters or less.
  • Tweak your texts and tweets: Get your message across in 140 characters.
  • Make your posts personable: There’s a reason they call it “social” media.

Attending the PRSA World Conference in San Diego in November? Learn even more: Join me for a half-day pre-conference session on writing for social media there.

“Answers to the ‘What are you doing?’ message don’t get very many retweets. If you’re trying to get more retweets, don’t just engage in idle chit-chat or tweet about mundane activities.”
— Dan Zarrella, HubSpot viral marketing scientist

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Communicate with your chart

Make sure your graphic says what you mean

Effective graphics aren’t just data dumps. They’re arguments that take a position and — we hope — make a point.

Here are three tips for organizing your charts and graphs for better understanding:

  • Organize data to help people see. Your table should tell a story. So organize by significance: from largest to smallest, maybe, or from most to least expensive. List stock prices in descending value of returns, not in alphabetical order by company name. That will help readers see relationships and make comparisons.
  • Cut your pie into big pieces. Pie charts start getting confusing when you have more than five “slices.” Need more slices? A table might be clearer.
  • Think symbolically. “The best way to show how something works is not necessarily to show what it looks like,” says Joel Katz, principle of a Philadelphia-based information and design firm. He once used a Star Wars analogy to explain antibodies.

Rev Up Readership Gold and Silver members, get more tips for crafting charts that say what you mean.

Rev Up Readership Gold members, get more than 50 tipsheets on communicating through design. And download “Take the Numb Out of Numbers: How to make statistics more interesting and accessible” (PDF). This e-book is free with your Gold membership.

Sources: Ann Wylie, “Everything Editors Need to Know About Design: How to create a publication that’s attractive and easy to read — without killing your art director,” Wylie Communications Inc., 2002

Securities and Exchange Commission, A Plain English Handbook: How to create clear SEC disclosure documents,, August 1998

Richard Saul Wurman, Information Architects, Graphis Inc., 1997

“Diagrams are just thoughts with a line around them.”
— Bruce Robertson, co-founder, The Diagram Group, in Information Architects

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Timelines of timelines

How people ‘tell’ time

From a 1753 timeline of history recorded on a 54-foot scroll … to a timeline expressed on a yardstick … to a Web crawler that searches the Internet and classifies events chronologically … the York University Department of Mathematics and Statistics “Timelines and Visual Histories” shows how humans “tell” time.

Need inspiration for your organization’s history? This is the place to start.

Also see:

“Visuals are the crucial connection point. Not to value visuals is not to value readers.”
— Monica L. Moses, deputy managing editor of visuals for the Minneapolis Star Tribune

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How to draw a crowd for your chapter workshop

PRSA Puget Sound does it again!

When PRSA Puget Sound brought me in for a program in 2008, the chapter drew more than 100 participants. When the chapter brought me in again just 12 months later — in the midst of the recession — chapter leaders still managed to draw more than 85 attendees.

“And, to top that off, both workshops are held in August, a time when many are taking time off,” says PD chair Karla Slate.

How did they do it? I asked Slate for her secrets. She writes:

The chapter promoted the program through:

  • Teasers in its monthly newsletter (several months in advance)
  • Articles in its monthly newsletter (regularly until event)
  • Teasers on chapter website (during early planning stages)
  • Full information on chapter website with link to register
  • Fliers distributed at all chapter events
  • Verbal announcements at all chapter events
  • Email announcements and email registration links through CVENT

How they profit every time (even in August!):

  • Well, Ann is a huge draw of course! [ed: Thanks, Karla! :-)]
  • Ann’s workshops aren’t the same every year, so people come back instead of saying, “I’ve already seen her.”
  • We secured venues for free and catered breakfast ourselves, saving more than $400.
  • We started promoting in the springtime, giving folks a huge lead time to make arrangements to attend
  • We created a defined pricing structure in 2008, then refined it because of the economy in 2009.
  • We encouraged attendance by offering an early-bird discount and student rate.

How they priced the 2009 program:

  • Students — $75
  • Early-bird member — $85
  • Regular rate (after July 15th) —  $95
  • Non-member —  $145
  • Walk-in rate —  $115

“We found that almost half of attendees in 2009 registered as non-members and paid the higher price,” Slate says. “One assumption is that because of the economy, they couldn’t keep their membership current. However, people still want to see Ann, despite their membership status, so they pay the non-member rate. This allowed us to bring in even more revenue in 2009.”

“Budget dust: Year-end money that must be spent before it is swept away by the cold winds of a new fiscal year.”

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Eat your budget dust

How to invest your year-end money before it gets swept away

‘Tis the season for many of us to use what remains of our 2009 budget … or lose it altogether. Here are five ways to invest your budget dust this year to improve communications for years to come:

Want more details? Contact me .

Where in the world is Ann?

Cut your training costs when you piggyback your program

Save money when you piggyback your workshop by scheduling it when I’m already “in the neighborhood.” Book your program the day before or after another organization’s and split my airfare and ground transportation with the other group.

Ask about piggybacking on my upcoming engagements in:

  • Anchorage, Alaska: Oct. 21
  • Chicago: March 5
  • Cleveland: Nov. 30 – Dec. 3
  • Hartford, Conn.: Oct. 29
  • New York: Dec. 11
  • San Diego: Nov. 8

Save even more: Ask about my communication association discounts and second-day fee reductions.

Contact me to discuss piggybacking.

“[Ann’s workshop was] packed with so much valuable information. I learned more in just one day than I learned in any college course. You keep it real and full of useful information.”
— Melinda Dorning, communications manager, ACBSP

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Ann’s touring schedule

Polish your skills at one of these events

Alas, I can’t invite you to the in-house seminars I present for private organizations. But everyone’s invited to these upcoming public seminars in:

Would you like to attend? Please contact meeting planners directly for details.

Can’t make these events? If you’d like to bring me in for a workshop at your organization, contact me.

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Let’s connect

Keep in touch via:

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Keep up with Ann’s calendar

Find out when I’m coming to your neighborhood, learn when you can sign up for one of my programs and otherwise keep up with my calendar.

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What are we up to?

The folks at Wylie Communications have been enjoying:

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For more info …

… about my seminars, publication consulting or writing and editing services, please contact me orvisit my website.

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Please share this issue …

… with two of your colleagues by directing them to our e-zine Web page. Better yet, invite them tosubscribe to Wylie’s Writing Tips. They’ll thank you — and so will I!

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