Short paragraphs are essential for today’s online readers.
Attention span is the key to online screen reading. It doesn’t matter if it is a blog post or a Kindle ebook. Reading on a screen has changed the way people read, understand and absorb a text.
A good piece of writing for online reading can be measured by the number of sentences you link together. Too many sentences in one solid lump can be very hard to read.
If you still think that ten sentences is a good formula, it’s time to think again. Today’s readers love reading with much more space.
How long is a paragraph?
In the past, your English teacher probably told you that the general rule of thumb was that a paragraph was a distinct section of a piece of writing. It dealt with a single theme.
It was not unusual to write paragraphs that occupied a whole page.
A good paragraph can consist of as many sentences as needed to cover a topic in detail. It applied to both fiction and academic writing.
The start of a new paragraph introduces the topic. Following sentences expand on it, until the concluding sentence. But the sentences cover only one idea per paragraph.
For educational, academic and business writing, paragraph construction is often described as being between 3 to 8 sentences.
It can use 100 to 250 words. Another measure is that a paragraph is about half a page.
But the definition of a paragraph by the Cambridge Dictionary makes it very clear. One sentence can qualify as being a complete paragraph.
A short part of a text that begins on a new line. It consists of one or more sentences dealing with a single idea.
The Merriam-Webster dictionary has a similar definition.
A subdivision of a written composition that consists of one or more sentences. It deals with one point or gives the words of one speaker, and begins on a new usually indented line.
Both dictionaries point out that the only essential feature of a paragraph rule is that it starts on a new line.
How many sentences in one paragraph? You might be a purist, but short paragraphs are becoming the new rule because they are much easier to read.
In today’s online reading world, a long paragraph can be extremely difficult to read and understand when reading on a screen.
Please, give me shorter paragraphs!
When reading online, or with an ebook reader, the hard and fast rule is that readers need lots of space. They want plenty of white space to tap with their fingers and space to scroll with their thumb. You might think that you are writing beautifully constructed coherent paragraphs. But for an online reader, your 300-word paragraphs are going to cause them pain when they try to read them. The topic sentence that you so carefully wrote will be lost in a sea of text. It will be almost impossible to digest on a screen. Long paragraphs are difficult to read and understand. The words tend to merge together in a sea of blocked text. It makes comprehension difficult. It requires far more concentration to read. You should always avoid using paragraphs with a lot of sentences without using any line or paragraph breaks. How many sentences in a paragraph needs to be set by how readable your text is for a reader. The best solution is to add line or paragraph breaks to break up your text. Then a reader’s eyes don’t have to strain to read every single word in your over-crowded paragraph of text.
You can see the warning above. The writing assistant program I use when I write blog posts doesn’t like that last long paragraph.
It pops up a warning for me anytime I exceed 90-word paragraphs. But I am always surprised that it says that a paragraph should typically be one to five sentences.
How can you possibly fit five sentences into 90 words?
But that is today’s rule for online writing for paragraph length. Keep them short and readable.
Formatting paragraphs for ebooks
You can breathe a sigh of relief if you are writing and publishing paperbacks or hardcover versions of your book.
Reading on paper is different from online reading. It is the same as it has been for centuries. You can write three hundred word paragraphs and your readers will love you for it.
Nothing has changed for readers who like to crack the spine of a good read.
But for an ebook, you should think about changing your formatting to help your readers.
You should give careful thought to how many sentences you group together in one paragraph.
Give your ebook readers plenty of space. Break up your text into smaller and more digestible chunks. Add more line breaks than you normally would do for a paperback. It will make your ebook much easier to read on any screen or device.
Reading ease depends on the device or app a reader is using to read your book.
People read ebooks on so many different devices, ranging from quite small to medium-size screens. Your text will flow to suit the size of a screen.
They might need space to scroll down a page with their thumb as they read, or to tap to turn pages.
You will certainly have long compound sentences in an ebook manuscript. But try to limit your paragraphs to only one or two sentences.
As a guide, limit a paragraph in an ebook to no more than six to eight lines of text.
Before publishing an ebook you should check how your book looks and reads on a small screen.
Blog and article writing use very short paragraphs
Single sentence paragraphs are now almost the norm for web pages, blog posts and online news articles.
I am sure you have noticed this when you are online reading.
Even popular mainstream newspapers are following the same rule. Look at this article in the New York Times. Not one paragraph is more than two sentences long.
As you can see, this news article is written using a collection of sentences that look like paragraphs. But at most, there are only two sentences grouped together.
On the other side of the Atlantic, The Independent newspaper takes an even stricter approach to paragraph formatting. Most of its articles are written in one-sentence paragraphs.
Another good example of the use of very short paragraphing is Deutsche Welle in Germany.
It breaks up text in its articles into very small one or two sentence chunks. It also uses left and right-aligned images to break up the text even more.
As you can see by the image below, it is a very readable site for screen reading.
Take a look at some of your existing blog posts and check how you have formatted your paragraphs.
If they are too long, make some changes. It will only take you a few minutes to add more paragraph breaks and perhaps insert a few headings.
One other factor to consider is your font selection. You should use a standard serif or sans serif font.
Also, set a size that is easy to read on a laptop or phone screen. Arial and Times in 15 or 16px or 12 to 13pt are always easy to read fonts.
Serif fonts are generally used on most newspaper websites. For blogs and content articles, sans serif is often the preferred choice. But there is no right or wrong choice.
If you are curious, I use Raleway which a Google Font. It is similar to Arial and Helvetica. The font size I use for content text on this blog is 17px.
Once you make these simple changes, you can quickly republish your post or article. It will be much easier for your blog visitors to read on any device.
The new short paragraph structure
For online writing, one of the best writing tips is to use a paragraph heading to help group your information together.
A good heading briefly introduces the topic. After that, you start with a topic sentence.
You can follow this with related sentences and separate them with line breaks. But, only group two sentences together as long as they are relatively short.
These sentence paragraphs are still concentrating on a single theme and should always have a concluding sentence.
Good paragraphing for online reading makes it much easier for a reader to absorb and understand what you write.
Make your key words and keywords stand out
Content writers and marketers know about writing around SEO keywords. They always include these in the title and the first couple of sentences.
In the rest of the text, there will be other key words. Or important words that expand on a range of other topics.
These may not have any great SEO value. But they are important for a reader to understand the flow of the text.
If an article is about self-publishing options, self-publishing will be the main SEO keyword.
But the topic of a paragraph in the middle of a long article will be different. It could be about writing accuracy and correcting grammar mistakes.
The important words in this paragraph will be grammar mistakes.
Because your paragraph is split into sentences, these words should appear in your heading. Then possibly in the first topic sentence. But definitely in the last sentence to reinforce your key words.
The long paragraph might not be dead yet. But it is definitely going out of fashion. Or perhaps, it has been refashioned.
Check your online article and blog post reading ease. Use short coherent paragraphs that are split into small sentence chunks under a new paragraph heading.
The sentences can then develop the topic just the same as an old fashioned boxed paragraph.
The only difference is that a good piece of writing for screen reading gives a reader much more white space. This helps their eyes navigate the text more easily.
If you are writing blog posts, online articles or ebooks, think about your readers and your paragraph formatting. Make it as easy as you can for them to read and enjoy your writing.
Give your readers the space they need to be able to read comfortably on any size screen or device.
I started my working life as a lithographer and then spent over 30 years in the printing and publishing business.
Originally from Australia, I moved to Switzerland 20 years ago. My days are spent teaching English, writing and wrestling with technology while enjoying my glorious view of the Alps.
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