How not to write paragraphs on the web

Some quick set of questions for you.

Take a look at a page of your own copy.

Do your paragraphs look enticing?

Are you writing those paragraphs with the aim of helping your reader? And more specifically one reading online?

If there’s some slight hesitation in there, don’t worry. Paragraphs often get overlooked when it comes to creating copy.

That, and how we’ve been taught to create paragraphs in the first place.

How we were schooled

Ever heard of the Five Paragraph Essay?

It’s probably not something you’ve known by name, but if you’ve been to high school, it is definitely something you’ve been taught.

The Five Paragraph Essay is exactly its name. Students are taught to explain complex ideas by using this specific structure.

They’ll start with a first paragraph made up of two to three sentences as the opening statement.

This is followed by three more sentences briefly describing what will be discussed in the main body of the essay.

A short sentence may follow that, to bridge this section to the first sentence of the next paragraph. This paragraph and the next two will then discuss the essay topic, with a fifth paragraph to conclude.

Sure, the beginning-to-end structure is a good thing and is still useful even for web copy.

But when it comes to the actual web copy, many web authors are still creating content as if they’re creating for printed material. Like they’re essays. This often means long, bulky paragraphs, or paragraphs containing long sentences.

Producing content for the web means writing *for the web*. And this also includes ebooks and course material.

The web is its own medium, just like a book, with its rules.

As I often say to clients, web copy shouldn’t be treated like it’s a digital version of print copy. How a reader behaves when reading web copy is different to holding a book in their hand.

Which means everything we’ve been taught about creating copy in school goes out the window.

Why no one is reading

Novelist Carl Hiassen once said 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.”

But if a web reader can’t get passed the length of your paragraphs, period, you’ve lost.

For one thing, given how no one really reads anything on the web in a dedicated way you would a printed page, you need to adjust your copy for scanning.

Scanning is when readers will search through your pages, looking for clues, keywords, and other details in their hunt for answers.

Your copy needs to catch their eye, as they scan.

Your copy needs to appear easy to absorb, since they’ll be busy readers with no time for any deep reading.

So what can you do help them along?

How to be mindful

For starters, you want to ditch those long, text-heavy paragraphs and be as bite-sized and digestible as possible.

You still want to make sure each paragraph is communicating ONE IDEA at a time (as is the golden rule of all paragraph writing.)

But the shorter and more concise that paragraph is, the better it is for your reader.

Anything longer than three sentences is considered too long, so be mindful of that.

If you’re finding it hard to keep paragraphs at that length, then find a natural break in whatever paragraph you have now, even if you’re still explaining just one idea, so the next line starts as a new paragraph.

You also want to avoid overloading your reader with too much information at any one time.

Okay, but what if you’re creating well-crafted but long sentences in your paragraphs? Easy – simply run these individual sentences as their own paragraph.

Because paragraphs that are one single line long are okay on the web.

(See what I mean by the web having its own way?)

Another way of treating paragraphs is by turning each one into its own mini subsection.

So if you’re trying to explain a specific concept in your paragraph, you could break it up into separate sentences, grouped together under a sub-heading, so the reader knows they all belong together.

This stops them from thinking this is a list of aimless sentences (and lists are boring to read, as well as easy to skip.)

Lastly, to make your page even more of engaging read, consider breaking up sections of paragraphs with subheadings and photos that support what your overall page is communicating.

Not only does this help the scanning reader, your page will feel more vibrant and fun.

Even if you’re sharing something heavy or technical.