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HomeGuidelines > 1. Trim that Text! > 1d. Make most paragraphs short.                                                               

 

Background

Diagram

Examples

Audience Fit

Challenges

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1d. Make most paragraphs short.

  • Insert carriage returns liberally.
  • Cut the text to the bone, then put paragraph breaks between ideas.
  • Write in the line length you expect to see on most of your browsers. Count lines. After half a dozen lines, start reaching for the Enter key.
  • Remember: One sentence is a perfectly good paragraph, on the Web.

Background

People are more likely to read a short passage of text than a long one, especially if they have to make an extra effort, like scrolling, to do it. Onscreen text is more difficult and time consuming to read than hardcopy text, which makes people even less likely to thoroughly read long sections of text on a computer.—Apple (1997)

Users rarely read long contiguous passages of text from computer screens.—Lynch, 1997.

Short paragraphs help skimming. —Bricklin (1998).

In general, a paragraph of more than six or eight lines would be more readable if you broke it up into two shorter paragraphs. —Kilian (1999).

Users are not inclined to read long paragraphs. —America Online (2001).

See: Abeleto (1999), America Online (2001), Apple (1987), Bricklin (1998), Gee et al (1999),  Holcomb et al (1999), Horton (1990), Hudson & Berman (1985), Kaiser (2000), Kilian (1999), Lynch (1999), Marschark & Paivio (1977), NCSA (1996), Spyridakis (2000), Sullivan (1998), Zipf (1949)

Other ways to trim that text

1a. Cut any paper-based text by 50%.

1b. Use short words.

1c. Make some sentences short.

1e. Delete marketing fluff.

1f. Move vital but tangential or supplemental material.

1g. Convert repeating categories of information into tables.

1h. Beware of cutting so far that you make the text ambiguous.

 

Diagram

 
 

Examples

Original paragraph

In this outstanding exhibition, you’ll be astonished with the range and depth of impressionism displayed in 84 superb paintings, drawings, and etchings from 19th century France and Denmark. Collected by the Danish insurance executive Wilhelm Hansen (1868-1936), these wonderful artworks formed a special gallery in his country house, which he called Ordrupgaard. Hansen died in 1936, survived by his wife, Henny. When Henny died, in 1951, the pictures—and the house— were bequeathed to Denmark, to form what is now known as the Ordrupgaard Collection. Rarely seen outside of Copenhagen, these are all major works—a lively pastel by Degas, a sun-drenched streetscape by Pissarro, a brilliant vision of Rome by Eckersberg. Enjoy the full panorama of Impressionism, with paintings by Cézanne, Corot, Courbet, Degas, Delacroix, Eckersberg. Gauguin, Købke, Manet, Monet, Pissarro, Renoir, Sisley. Through September 8.

137 words; 1 paragraph.

Revised paragraphs

Explore the range and depth of Impressionism in 84 paintings, drawings, and etchings from France and Denmark.

Collected by the Danish insurance man Wilhelm Hansen (1868-1936), these artworks formed a gallery in his country house, known as Ordrupgaard. When his wife Henny died, in 1951, the pictures—and the house— were bequeathed to Denmark.

Rarely seen outside of Copenhagen, these major works—a pastel by Degas, a streetscape by Pissarro, a vision of Rome by Eckersberg—show a panorama of Impressionism, with important paintings by:

  • Cézanne
  • Corot
  • Courbet
  • Delacroix
  • Gauguin
  • Købke
  • Manet
  • Monet
  • Renoir
  • Sisley

Through September 8.

100 words, 4 paragraphs.

Quiz about the changes

  • What trivial or unimportant facts have been deleted?
  • What important facts or examples have been deleted?
  • How has the tone changed?

Audience Fit

Too many trees?

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If visitors want... How well does this guideline apply?
To have fun Amusing, intriguing, erudite or aberrant prose can go on forever, like a Faulkner paragraph, and we don't object.  IN fact, we jump in.  So if you're planning to entertain your readers, you might start with a short paragraph, and throw a few more in, but you can certainly take a long breath and expound, too.
To learn Definitely relevant.  What looked fine in the lab handout looks intimidating online.  Keep every fact, save every idea, but put them into distinct paragraphs.
To act To guide action, keep your paragraphs as short as you can, without making them cryptic.
To be aware Compress the overtones by choosing words that resonate, rather than ramble.
To get close to people Long paragraphs make me scroll forward, whether I am reading e-mail, a discussion, or a Web site..

Ready for some challenges?

 

Resources on brevity

Taking a Position on Brevity

Heuristic Online Text (HOT) Evaluation for Brevity

Poster

 

 

 

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