Hit return more often
The problem with long paragraphs is that they look hard to read. And because they look hard to read, people don’t read them.
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 so you’d skip it.”
“Long paragraphs are a visual predictor that a story won’t work.”
— Jon Ziomek, associate professor at the Medill School of Journalism
How short? The New York Times covers everything from rocket science to brain surgery in an average paragraph length of 36 words. Couldn’t you cover your topic in the same short paragraph length?
So how do you 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 not only break up a paragraph, but they also cut words by eliminating the need for transitions.
How can you reach all of your readers?
Read it and weep. More than half of all Americans have basic or below-basic reading skills, according to the DOE’s latest adult literacy test.
To reach all of your readers — regardless of their reading level — please join me at Rev Up Readability, — our tight-writing workshop that begins on Sept. 19.
You’ll learn to make every piece you write easier to read and understand. You’ll walk away with secrets you can use to reach more readers, measurably improve readability and sell concise writing to management. And you’ll learn to write messages that get more people to read your piece, read more of it, read it faster, understand it better and remember it longer.
Save up to $100 with our group discounts.