Are You Overfeeding Your Paragraphs?
There are many reasons why running a blog can be beneficial to your business — from helping you to show your readers (and potential customers) that you know your stuff to boosting your SEO or even generating leads through a strong call to action.
For your post to do what it needs to do, though, it has to be easy for the reader to navigate. This means choosing the right type of content, of course, but also paying close attention to the way you present what you have to say.
Which brings us to the dreaded bloated paragraph. You’ve probably seen it yourself: A monolithic slab of text staring back at you from the page in a solid, impenetrable block. Much like a bad speech, it’s often befuddling, repetitious and meandering, and, no matter how relevant the subject or how great the argument, this can be off-putting for your readers. In the worst case scenario, it may even send them looking for a more digestible version elsewhere.
The good news is, this is a fairly simple skill to master with a little self-editing. We’ll look at this below, but first a few technical details…
Types of Paragraph
Before we get to the solution, we need to look at what we’re dealing with. There are five different types of paragraph: Narrative, descriptive, expository, persuasive and literary. You may be writing a piece that involves all five (unlikely) or a mixture of a couple (likely). In blogging, however, you’re more likely to be writing expository and persuasive paragraphs, so these will be the focus of this post.
These are used for giving information. They explain a subject, a set of instructions or how something works, and are the staple of most textbooks, magazine articles and news publications. The emphasis is on conveying information as simply and clearly as possible. If you have to explain something to your readers, especially something technical, it makes sense to use clear, straightforward language and keep flowery prose to a minimum.
Persuasive paragraphs are in the business of… persuading! They have a lot more personality than expository paragraphs, and often use rhetorical devices (similes, metaphors, analogies, and so on) to steer the audience’s thinking in the way the author intends.
The Structure: Topic and Supporting Sentences
Whatever type of paragraph you’re writing, it’s important to have a topic sentence to lead the way. It gives the reader context — letting them know what the paragraph will be discussing and the direction you’re taking. This is followed by (supporting) sentences that flesh out the idea introduced by your topic sentence through evidence and description.
Within a given topic, paragraphs should flow from one to another, aided by transitional sentences or clauses. Try to avoid anything jarring, and instead take the reader gently by the hand and lead them to the next paragraph. Of course, this doesn’t apply in every case. When changing to a new subject or comparing ideas, you may instead want to emphasize the distinctions. Always keep in mind how one paragraph relates to another, and whether you want continuity or contrast. Think of the overall story you want to tell and the role of each paragraph in telling it.
One technique for linking a paragraph with a new topic to the paragraph before it is to start with a complex sentence. Write the dependent clause of the complex sentence — this is your transitional part — recapping what was dealt with in the previous paragraph, and the main clause as the topic sentence of your new paragraph. The following example illustrates how I could have, and probably should have, transitioned from the paragraph on topic sentences to the one on paragraph transitions.
[Dependent clause transitioning from paragraph on topic sentences] Although topic sentences are necessary for clarity, [main clause acting as a topic sentence] showing the relationship between paragraphs can be of equal importance in helping your readers make connections.
How Long Is Too Long?
Before we get into the touchy subject of size, I want to make it clear that I’m not advocating the law of Twitter (140 character limit). Ernest Hemingway, who was known for his short and simple sentences, was challenged to write a whole story in six words: For sale: baby shoes, never worn. It’s definitely short, but I’m not quite sure it would sate most peoples’ hunger for fiction — and for a blog post, more complex ideas may need a few extra sentences to get the point across. But when your audience has been calibrated to the whizz, zip and whoosh of the 21st century, there’s more of an appetite for the quick-and-easy than the longwinded.
Long and winding paragraphs may have their place in fiction (Will Self’s modernist novel, Umbrella, comes to mind), but for an informative blog post this technique will most likely only serve to make your work less accessible and attractive to your readers. Psychologically, we prefer to have an end in sight, and when we try to understand something, we often break it down into digestible chunks, allowing us to get a handle on what would otherwise be like climbing Everest in one go.
Reducing your paragraphs can be beneficial in two ways: Firstly, you’re making it easier for your reader to digest, signaling those all important breaks for your audience to reflect. Secondly, this exercise allows you the opportunity to tighten up your writing — avoiding repetition and paragraphs that become unwieldy.
So how do we go about this?
A general rule is to keep your ideas to one per paragraph. But, even then, that one idea may be multifaceted and in need of being broken down across several paragraphs. As an exercise, list the separate points being made to track for overloading and repetition — which takes me to my next point…
Repetition is perhaps the most common of all the paragraph sins: You explain your idea, and then you continue to explain it again and again in ever so slightly different ways. Stop! Read through the paragraph and delete any repetitions. Be ruthless — your audience will thank you for it. Now, how to segue into my next paragraph?
The final part we’ll be covering is, rather fittingly, the concluding sentence: The hard-hitting emphatic one-liner that you’ve been building up to.
The concluding sentence’s role is tying together the material that’s been discussed throughout the rest of the paragraph. It corrals the sentences’ thoughts, and is the one exception to a little repetition. Despite its name, it doesn’t have to be the very last sentence in your paragraph (you may want that to be a transitional sentence), but it should definitely come after the supporting sentences of your topic sentence, for obvious reasons.
These guidelines vary depending on the type of paragraph being written and the writer’s objective. For example, if you’re writing the concluding sentence for your last paragraph on a piece comparing and contrasting two products, you may want to restate the topic sentence for both preceding paragraphs to evaluate key similarities or stark differences.
The one thing all these guidelines have in common is that they’re geared towards making a subject or story as clear as possible for your readers. And when writing for the internet, this usually means smaller and healthier looking paragraphs. So, if your post is replete with muffin-tops, try putting it on the paragraph plan to a healthier looking blog.