Exposing the lore 03: “Control word count, sentence length and paragraph length”

ETL 03Up to now the posts in this short series have been rather critical of lore I’ve been exposing. This post is going to be somewhat transitional, in that the lore I want to discuss is not all that damaging to the Internet content creator and, if correctly interpreted (like most lore!) can actually be of use to writers.

Word count

This idea comes up a lot, “keep your posts short”, “be thorough, but no more than 1500 words” and the like. There is actually no consensus on this and most will say “depends on the subject” or “depends on the audience”.

There is a bit of history behind this word count idea. In a not-too-remote past, an average “content farm” would ask contributors to explain in 200 words or less. As users began looking for more complete information, that word count was doubled to 400. With the change in Google algorithms, the trend went for longer content, between 600 and 1500 words. That may change in the future, word count preferences are never going to be static.

When I gave review classes to ESL (English as a Second Language) students, if I asked them to write out a paragraph on a topic, their first question was inevitably “how many words?”, to which I always answered “as many as it takes”. This question naturally came from their school experience, where teachers measured their work in part on a minimum/maximum number of words in the essay. I’ve also seen this in correcting ESL exams, where one marker is a minimum word count.

There are studies out there that somehow “prove” the amount of time a reader will spend on any article on Internet. The idea of keeping it short is not so much to encourage concise writing as it is to make sure the content can be read (or skimmed) in the six or so seconds a visitor spends looking at your stuff. Though any of this proof may be valid, I would kindheartedly suggest that writers simply write, read, proofread then edit their material and leave word count out of the equation. This may be difficult when writing to specs (where you will be told how many words to write!), but when writing for your own blog, use as many words as you need to get your idea across.

Sentence length

This is somehow related to that earlier post about grade level writing. Though it’s not as often placed in a “how to write content” bullet list, there is a general assumption that your sentences should not include too many clauses. Subject + verb + compliments, full stop, begin a new sentence. Internet readers are in a hurry, they don’t like long sentences, choppy choppy, that’s the style you’re looking for.

Again, depends on what you’re writing. Selling those steel-toed working boots won’t demand long sentences: “They’re comfortable.” “Equipped with ISO standard steel toes.” “The attractive design combines with all clothing styles.” However, if you are really developing an idea, don’t be afraid to make complex sentences.

Just be sure that you are not running on at the fingers. Watch your commas, your verb tense agreement, parallel constructions and the like. Maybe, if you can’t read that sentence aloud with one deep breath, you might want to break it into two. You’ll decide. Just don’t write with your sentence length in mind, that’s something you’ll correct when you edit yourself (or you should!)

Paragraph length

Here I’m actually going to agree. Back when I studied composition, the idea was the “five paragraph essay”, where the first paragraph was an introduction with three ideas presented, the next three paragraphs developed each of those ideas and the final paragraph concluded. This structure, though fine for written essays in school or even for printed matter like books, doesn’t seem appropriate for Internet content.

The suggestion is usually to keep each paragraph to one theme. Keep the paragraphs less bulky. Squint your eyes and look at just how big that block of text is and look for somewhere half-way through where you can break it in two. Speak about one idea in each block of text. Try to put your controlling sentence at the beginning and add concise sentences that develop and expand and explain that theme. If you find yourself straying from the theme, skip a line and begin a new paragraph.

This makes it more agreeable for users to consume your information. They can see at once what you’re talking about in the paragraph, can decide to continue reading or skip to the next that has information closer to what they are looking for. The white space between paragraphs also gives the eyes a moment’s pause before delving into the next text. It’s to everyone’s advantage.


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