I have a few quick questions to ask you.
Take a look at one of your web pages.
Are your paragraphs easy to read?
Does each one address a single idea?
If you’re not totally sure, then don’t worry.
You’ve probably never thought about paragraphs so deeply before, I bet.
But that was before we started writing for the web.
The way we create paragraphs
Have you heard of the Five Paragraph Essay?
You might not know the name.
But high school students have been taught to write using this method.
Firstly, they create an opening statement made of two to three sentences as their first paragraph.
Then it’s followed by three more sentences describing the body of their essay.
A short sentence then ties this paragraph with the second paragraph. This second paragraph is followed by two more, with a third providing the conclusion.
Don’t get me wrong, I think using a structure is great. Anything that makes writing easier gets a thumbs up from me.
But using this method for web copy often leaves pages of text unsuitable for reading.
Paragraphs might take up half a page before they get to the point. Pages end up filled with long, winding sentences or too much text to comb.
I often say this to online solopreneurs: you need your copy formatted for screen readability. How a reader behaves when reading from a screen is very different to reading a book in their hand.
Why no one is actually reading
Writer Carl Hiassen once said this of paragraphs:
“You can do the best research and be making the strongest intellectual argument, but if readers don’t get past the third paragraph you’ve wasted your energy and valuable ink.”
Yes, I agree.
And this is true on the web, when paragraphs must be presented differently to engage readers.
People don’t read on the web, they tend to scan. Scanning is when readers search through your pages, looking for answers to problems they might be having.
Your copy needs to help them scan effectively.
It also needs to help them absorb what they do read. Perhaps they’ll even stop a bit longer to read more.
So how can you help them do that?
How to be mindful
For starters, you need to shorten your paragraphs to three sentences maximum. Anything more is considered too long.
Make sure each paragraph communicates only one idea at a time.
If you’ve got more to say, then devote a paragraph to each point you want to make.
Paragraphs can also be one sentence in length (as you’ll have noticed me use in this post.)
The tone of the paragraphs should be kept informal, as though you’re having a conversation with your readers.
It takes time
Breaking out of what we know of paragraphs can take a while to undo. What we learned in school can have quite a hold on us.
While doing this might feel awkward at first, it’s your target clients who will ultimately benefit from this shift.
They probably really want to read your stuff. You may just be the solution they’ve been looking for.
They just need you to help them understand who you are.