I was reading a blog post about content marketing yesterday and realized part way through that I was having a tough time following along. The ideas were not overly complex, but they had no coherence. I felt as if I was being pulled in a little red wagon down a winding, bumpy path.
I decided to figure out why I experienced the writing this way, and I found that it was the result of poor, random paragraphing. For the introduction, the writer had 11 one sentence paragraphs. These were the bumps.
If you are like most bloggers, paragraphing is all about length, short. Bloggers of late have become conscious that readers are turned off by long paragraphs and chunks of text, and in response, they are abandoning many of the functions of paragraphs. However, paragraphs cannot be measured by length alone. Other textual features can help you break up the text.
Why does it matter you ask? Well, paragraphing can either make your blog post clean, with organized information that helps the reader navigate your ideas smoothly, like they are maneuvering an expensive Mercedes, or it can eliminate all sense of organization and create a bumpy ride. My goal is to help you create ideal paragraphs that will help rather than hinder.
The function of paragraphs relates to the human brain. The mind loves ideas to be ordered and categorized, and as you read, it is looking for clues to store the information efficiently. Topic sentences are like creating folders for your brain to place related ideas in.
If you are a writer and have not visited the Owl Purdue Online Writing Lab, I highly recommend you scan its pages. The lab has an amazing wealth of information on writing, geared toward college students and educated readers. They explain that:
A paragraph is a collection of related sentences dealing with a single topic. ... The basic rule of thumb with paragraphing is to keep one idea to one paragraph. If you begin to transition into a new idea, it belongs in a new paragraph.
You may find it helpful to start with some kind of an outline to help you organize your ideas and decide on paragraph placement. This can take many forms: a formal outline, a mind map, a blueprint, or an informal sketching of idea units. Whatever you decide, you'll find organization comes much easier when you can see it visually on the page.
You don't need to be concerned about the number of paragraphs, as this is irrelevant. The important thing is that the paragraphs have a tight focus. So, this means that blogs can have smaller paragraphs. All you have to do is make your idea units smaller. So, for example, here I break up the paragraph structure into several paragraphs, when technically it is one idea. The shorter paragraphs are more appealing.
So, instead, I decided to break it up into different sections about structure to keep the paragraphs shorter. I will give you some general guidelines to help generate solid paragraphs. These are not hard, fast rules:
- Pre-writing: this is the writing that takes place before you begin to write the post, and I wouldn't be surprised if you don't do any. Many writers hit that blank page with a running start. The problem is that organization is difficult when you are writing on the fly. Outlines and mind maps are excellent pre-writing strategies, but there are many more that help you round out and develop your ideas thoroughly. In pre-writing, identify your idea units: sections with headings and paragraphs.
- Introductions: these are a little different than other paragraphs because you are easing your reader into your style of writing and topic. Be careful not to start out too general with something like "in the world today" or "people always" or "in the past, the United States." All of these are very general, and you want to catch the readers attention with the introduction. Start with something punchy and engaging. You also want to clarify where you are heading with a thesis statement. The introduction can be more than one paragraph, but the thesis statement should come as the last sentence in it.
- Topic sentences: I know it sounds old school and basic, but if you read the best bloggers and professional writers out there, they all do it. A topic sentence states the main idea of the paragraph, and as the first sentence, it provides a focal point for the reader. It is a sentence rather than a question, and provides a folder for your brain to store the ideas in the paragraph.
- The build: with the topic sentence to start you off, the paragraph becomes much easier to write because you have a focal point. Look back to that topic sentence as you write supporting sentences to make sure you stay on topic. Keep writing until you complete the idea unit. If you find that the paragraph is too long for a blog post, then divide it into two or more sub-ideas with their own topic sentences and paragraphs.
- Conclusions: the end of the paragraph should contain a sentence that wraps up the idea. Do not summarize. That becomes repetitive. Just give hints that you are wrapping up the idea. The end of the post will also contain a concluding sentence with forward thinking, not summary. This means that you point ahead to why the information is significant, what the reader should do next, or how the reader can use the new knowledge.
- Headings: blog posts allow for a variety of formatting techniques that help the reader process the visual information. Short paragraphs are a start, but you should also make use of bolded headings to divide major sections for your reader. Readers usually scan ahead, using these headings to see where you are going. From an SEO standpoint, bolded headings are an excellent strategy as well because you are drawing attention to the keywords in your post.
- Bullets and numbers: when useful, these provide excellent visual cues for your reader, as you are telling them to pay special attention to these points. To make this work, then, the information you include in bullets and numbers should be especially important. These are also good SEO strategies when used correctly.
- Block quotes: when you have an exceptional quote from an authority that lends credibility to your writing (not Wikipedia or Ask.com), include it as a block quote, a feature which most blogging software has. The technical rule for these is that you should block the quote if it is 40 words or more, and you do not use quotation marks. The block structure tells the reader that it's quoted.
- Images: while this might not seem to relate to paragraphing, images help to create white space and break up the text. They are another tool to hold the readers' attention. Readers enjoy images if they add to the content of the post.
- Tie backs: remind yourself in each paragraph that the main idea should direct the reader back to the thesis statement. Make clear to the readers that you are following the organization that you promised in the beginning.
- Transitions: at the beginning of each paragraph be sure to include a transition to the new idea, helping your readers to follow the flow. Two kinds of transitions can be used. The first are keyword transitions, which involves taking a main point or word from the latter part of the previous paragraph and including it in the first part of the next paragraph. These transitions really create a tight focus. The other kind is called a sign post, which is a word that creates a relationship between ideas: however, first, next, then, therefore, etc. You will use more keywords than sign posts.
- Revision: when you finish your paragraphs, take a look to make sure that you have maintained your focus and that your paragraphs are a suitable length. For blog posts, three to five sentences is a good rule of thumb, but remember ideas are most important. Ruthlessly cut extra language and ideas that deviate from your central point. Work on the wording and language so that your paragraphs are short and snappy. Oftentimes, when paragraphs are too long, it's because you've included language that should be cut. As you revise, look for strong topic sentences and transitions as well.
When you've finished this process, your paragraphs are organized and bound together throughout the post, and your readers will love it. This format makes it easily scannable for readers who are in a hurry, and it will turn that red wagon into a comfy Mercedes.
You will enjoy these articles on writing:
- Words gain power when cut down [video]
- Stuck finding a topic? This post will help
- Here's why you can't simply write like you talk [video]
- Essential life lessons from a ten year old scientist
- How to create a conclusion that rocks readers
Before you go, take a moment to let us know what you think. Are these ideas useful?
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