One of the telling differences between traditional writing and writing for the web is the length of the paragraph.
Look at the example below. Which is easier to read?
On the left, the paragraphs are huge, long blocks of text. On the right, the paragraphs have been broken up into smaller chunks.
Most people find the shorter length paragraphs easier to read on the web.
In traditional writing, paragraphs could go on for pages without breaking, as could run-on sentences, taking the reader on a journey across many words and pages, turning the page as the eye scans the story, gobbling up every word.
Few writers on the web can get away with that form on their sites.
In Colorado, I found a newspaper with an editorial policy that every sentence must be a paragraph.
All the news was reported in one sentence per paragraph.
Not a single paragraph featured more than one sentence.
It was painful to read.
I felt choppy, distracting, and quite uncomfortable.
You are probably feeling that way after reading the above example sentences, one per paragraph.
This is the opposite of long paragraphs, chucking the content into single sentences, breaking the natural flow of thought as one reads. On the web, people are not patient enough for either, though many news organizations including the BBC (especially in the Sports columns) use this technique on the web. Their sentences tend to be a little more complex and not as condensed.
The general rule for web writing is to keep your paragraphs short, but what does that mean?
I’ve put together a simple chart comparing traditional media styles for paragraphs compared to web reading and expectations.
|Traditional Media||Web Writing|
|Number of ideas||One idea per paragraph||One point about the idea per paragraph|
|Number of sentences||Unlimited as long as the idea is conveyed.||Enough to make the point in one paragraph, and continue in the following paragraphs. Typically 1-3 sentences.|
|Indent paragraphs||Sometimes, depending upon the type of document and style.||Never. Indented paragraphs are awkward and hard to read.|
In “How Many Sentences in a Paragraph?” by Daily Writing Tips, the author attempted to define a paragraph and its length with regards to the web. The readers’ comments showcase how hard it is to define paragraph length in traditional media as well as online media. Some claim a paragraph is defined by the concept or point made within. Others claim there are paragraph police dictating paragraph length by the number of sentences.
There are no hard and fast rules. What rules is reader preference which creates a standard. Research has shown that web readers prefer shorter paragraphs. How short or long is up to your own writing style.
In “The Perfect Paragraph” on Smashing Magazine, Heydon Pickering wrote:
As designers, we are frequently and incorrectly reminded that our job is to “make things pretty.” We are indeed designers — not artists — and there is no place for formalism in good design. Web design has a function, and that function is to communicate the message for which the Web page was conceived. The medium is not the message.
Never is this principle more pertinent than when dealing with type, the bread and butter of Web-borne communication. A well-set paragraph of text is not supposed to wow the reader; the wowing should be left to the idea or observation for which the paragraph is a vehicle. In fact, the perfect paragraph is unassuming to the point of near invisibility. That is not to say that the appearance of your text should have no appeal at all. On the contrary: well-balanced, comfortably read typography is a thing of beauty; it’s just not the arresting sort of beauty that might distract you from reading.
This is a beautiful definition of a paragraph, one that is a thing of beauty as it does not distract the reader from reading.
Your blog exercise today is to review your paragraphs.
View them from the front end as published or draft post previews. Adjust the width of the screen from narrow to full and check how the web page design and content flow may shift and change.
If the paragraphs look like big blocks of hard-to-read text, edit the post to break them into shorter sections. If you use single sentences per paragraph, consider re-evaluating that style if it appears to be stilted and hard to read.
As you publish your posts over the next month or so, think about the length of the paragraph as you write. Group concepts and points into single paragraphs rather than long ones. See how they look. Check the response to the articles in the comments and stats to see if there are changes in the responses.
Some bloggers and web publishers set a fairly strict limit on the number of sentences and lengths of their paragraphs. Are you one? What is your preferred paragraph length?
For more information on paragraphs, see:
- Typesetting Paragraphs on Web Pages | Impressive Webs
- Content & usability: Web writing
- How Long Should a Paragraph Be? – Daily Writing Tips
- The Perfect Paragraph | Smashing UX Design
- How Little Do Users Read? – Nielsen Norman Group – Jakob Nielsen
- Purdue OWL: Paragraphs and Paragraphing
- Can you write a one-sentence paragraph? | thebettereditor
- Writing great articles: anatomy of a BBC news story | Leon Paternoster
Remember to include a hat tip link back to this post to create a trackback, or leave a properly formed link in the comments so participants can check out your blog exercise task. Your help spreading the news about these blog exercises is always appreciated.