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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.
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.
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.
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