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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.
As Jon Ziomek, associate professor at the Medill School of Journalism, says: “Long paragraphs are a visual predictor that a story won’t work.”
So if your paragraph is too long, then 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.”
The solution? Write short paragraphs.
But how short?
Use one to two sentences online.
Short paragraphs get more than twice the attention online, according to The Poynter Institute’s Eyetrack III study.
That isn’t surprising to anyone who’s researched paragraph length for more than a minute. We’ve learned, again and again over time, that long paragraphs reduce reading.
What’s surprising about this study is how the Poynter Institute — the think tank of how we write in print and online — defines an short online paragraph:
- Short paragraphs: 1 or 2 sentences long
- Medium paragraphs: 3 to 6 sentences long
- Long paragraphs: up to 18 sentences long
Paragraphs should be short. And online paragraphs should be really short.
Remember the rule of twos.
Another reason for super-short online paragraphs: Web visitors lean to the left. That is, they tend to read the first two words in a headline, the first two paragraphs on a page and the first two words in a sentence.
They also tend to read the first two sentences in a paragraph, according to research by the Nielsen Norman Group. So keep online paragraphs to that: just two sentences.
Pass the 1-2-3-4-5 Test for mobile.
But online reading has gotten harder in the last few years with the growth of mobile screen reading. These days, more than half of your audience members read your emails, your webpages and your content on their phones, not their laptops.
To keep readers from having to scroll to see your paragraph, pass Jon Ziomek’s 1-2-3-4-5 Test. Ziomek, a professor at the Medill School of Journalism, suggests that your paragraph contain:
- 1 idea, expressed in
- 2 to 3 sentences,
- taking up no more than 4 to 5 lines on the page
Pro tip: Email your paragraph to yourself and review it on your phone. If it passes the 1-2-3-4-5 Test, then you’re good to go.
“You must cut the meat into little pieces,” Ziomek says. Especially when writing for mobile.
Make the first paragraph 25 words
With the lead paragraph, you have a choice. You can build a bridge that your readers can easily walk over to get into your story. Or you can erect an obstacle that readers have to climb over to get into your story.
What’s a good length for a bridge? 25 words, according to the Circulation Managers Association Education Committee.
But a great lead can be even shorter. Remember, you don’t have to tell the whole story in the lead. That’s what the rest of the article is for! This New York Times lead weighs in at just eight words:
Russia has a new enemy: the currency markets.
Now, that’s a paragraph that few readers would skip.
Copyright © 2020 Ann Wylie. All rights reserved.
Ann Wylie works with communicators who want to reach more readers and with organizations that want to get the word out. To learn more about her training, consulting or writing and editing services, contact her at ann@WylieComm.com. Get FREE writing tips at this link and more than 2,000 writing tipsheets at RevUpReadership.com.
Photo credit: flamingo images
25 words is simply an arbitrary average someone defined based on newspaper layout. The intent is to break up dense text with a lot of “air” so it’s more inviting and easier to read in small chucks. Most of the important paragraphs in this commentary are more than 25 words, as well they should be. Certainly, we should aim for fewer than 50 words, especially on the Internet and in emails.
As a writer/editor for an online public relations publication and a chronic over-writer, I found these tips for keeping the attention of online readers very helpful. I can’t wait to use these tips when writing my next article or blog post. I especially love the “1-2-3-4-5 Test”, which is the perfect guide for keeping paragraphs that are meant to be read on a mobile device short. Great post, Ann!
-Emie Garrett , writer/editor for Platform Magazine
Good reminders, Ann. I work hard to keep paragraphs short — for my copy as well as clients’. But sometimes, in the rush to write, a batch of copy starts out a little long-winded.
The rule for mobile messages is new to me. Thanks for including that in the column, along with the handy memory aid.
– Tom Fuszard
Ann, thank you for these handy tips and reminders. It can sometimes be difficult to get outside of my own head when I write on topics I’m knowledgable about. The guidelines for sentence length really surprised me; I’ve been writing medium-sized paragraphs while thinking they were short.
I’ll definitely be keeping the 25 word rule in mind, as I tend to front load my posts and articles to get the reader interested. Meanwhile, all I’ve needed a good, short lead.