One way is to make your paragraphs much shorter than you were taught to write in elementary school. That’s an easy task, but it might be a hard habit to break.
Pull apart that Oreo cookie
In fourth grade, my daughter was taught to organize a paragraph like an Oreo cookie:
- The top of the cookie: The paragraph’s topic sentence
- The middle: Filler sentences supporting the topic sentence
- The bottom of the cookie: The concluding sentence
Stack up about five of these paragraphs and you’ve got your basic book report on “Treasure Island.”
That was fine when your audience was a teacher being paid to read your work closely and correct it. It was fine when your readers were college professors reading your essays, too.
But that’s not who’s reading your work now.
It’s a group of people who are busy and don’t want to work hard to understand what you’ve written. Breaking your paragraphs into shorter sentences makes it easier for them to do so.
Why the paragraph cookie had to crumble
Now, take a second and look at those last three paragraphs about the changing audience. Your 4th-grade teacher probably would have made you recast them as a single paragraph.
After all, the three paragraphs express a topic sentence idea (you have different readers now), supporting sentences (they’re busy people not being paid to read your work) and a concluding idea (break up your paragraphs).
Yet it’s easier to digest these thoughts when they’re spread out over the screen, right?
And that’s exactly why the old methods need to be updated: We’re increasingly reading screens rather than paper. Research says we need to keep our web writing short and scannable.
This often applies to print material, too. No doubt there are cases in which longer paragraphs are tolerable because you can count on sustained reader interest. But even in those cases, recognize that short attention spans are becoming the norm. Don’t give your readers an excuse to abandon your material because it takes too much work to comprehend.
How to break paragraphs without creating a mess
There are no templates or formulas that can give you an automatic answer to how to break up your Oreo cookie paragraphs. But there are some rules of thumb:
- Aim to keep paragraphs between 1 and 3 sentences.
- Try not to have more than 5 total lines of type per paragraph.
- Alter the length of paragraphs. Example: Follow one of your longer paragraphs with a single sentence, or even just a phrase. It provides contrast and draws attention to the shorter paragraph.
- If you’re stuck, break ALL of your paragraphs into single sentences, then reconnect them as makes sense to you.
- Use short paragraphs as one of several techniques to keep readers engaged. (I’ll write more about other techniques in upcoming posts.)
As with most writing tips, you can learn how to apply them by keeping them in mind as you read good writing – or bad. Pay attention to how The New York Times keeps paragraphs short, even when discussing complex issues. Or notice how you want to nod off when a company jams 6 sentences into a paragraph to try to persuade you how wonderful their products are.
There’s an element of subjectivity to this, of course. Too many paragraphs can make your work feel like a cheesy, direct-mail letter.
But play around with it. Show your work to your colleagues. Pretty soon you’ll find something that makes your writing more readable and makes your audience want to hear more.
Need help? I’ve pulled apart plenty of paragraph Oreos in my time. I can show you how it’s done or do it for you. Email me: email@example.com or call 612-419-4405.