Study: Short paragraphs boost online readership

Three easy tips to tighten paragraphs and increase readability.

When researchers for The Poynter Institute looked into what makes people read online, they found that one key predictor of attention was paragraph length. Researchers wrote:

“The bottom line is that stories with shorter paragraphs got more than twice as many overall eye fixations than those with longer paragraphs. These data suggest that the longer-paragraph format discourages reading and that short-paragraph format overwhelmingly encourages reading.”

Are your paragraphs too long? Here are three ways to make them tighter:

1. Hit return more often

This may be the easiest single thing you can do to cut 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:

  • Pause
  • Elaborate
  • 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

The only real rule is that you place your curser 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.

This is especially important online, where readers skim even more than they do in print. In one test, usability expert Jakob Nielsen made a Web page 47 percent more usable when he made the page more scannable with subheads, bold-faced lead-ins and bullets.

Ann Wylie is president of Wylie Communications, Inc., a writing, training and consulting firm. She is also the author of and Wylie’s Writing Tips.

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