Uncategorized Writing tips

Are Long Paragraphs Dead on The Web?

And what can be done about it?

In my efforts to compose sparse and spritely pose I have become afraid of long paragraphs. Such paragraphs on a web page look dense, blocky, and impenetrable . I tend to write no more than four or five sentences in a paragraph, the better to keep the eye moving through the text. My fear of long paragraphs has followed me to print.

I recently wrote a hardcopy letter with a 126 word paragraph. I anguished over it for too long, trying to split it apart, trying to reword it, trying anything I could to cut it down to size. Nothing worked. The paragraph said exactly what I wanted to say. I wound up using it, even though it didn’t match the length of the rest of my paragraphs. Here’s what that blocky paragraph looked like, nonsense text aside:

Lorem ipsum dolor sit amet, consectetur adipiscing elit. Vestibulum auctor facilisis dolor sed iaculis. Lorem ipsum dolor sit amet, consectetur adipiscing elit. Donec sollicitudin nisi gravida, volutpat nibh in, dignissim eros. Aliquam eleifend sapien ipsum, sit amet sollicitudin tellus bibendum sollicitudin. Duis vulputate, metus et accumsan elementum, erat turpis bibendum justo, in fringilla risus erat sit amet sem. Vivamus ullamcorper, nulla et feugiat tristique, nunc sapien dapibus sem, et tempus ante nulla mattis massa. Aliquam erat volutpat. Lorem ipsum dolor sit amet, consectetur adipiscing elit. Morbi nec risus elementum risus elementum faucibus sed eu ante. Morbi ullamcorper, libero facilisis pretium finibus, lacus tortor faucibus urna, eu luctus dolor justo eget lorem. Nullam in sodales magna. Nullam ut sem elit. Quisque congue, neque a fringilla finibus, felis.

With the exception of print, I fear a paragraph like that is not useful for the web. Perhaps occasionally?

The great authors, being great, cast longer paragraphs with great effect. I’ve written how  the least amount of words should convey a message. (internal link). Sometimes, though, we must cast aside our allegiance to brevity and boldly put what we need to say. At least in print.

Here’s Orwell at 298 words:

You discover, for instance, the secrecy attaching to poverty. At a sudden stroke you have been reduced to an income of six francs a day. But of course you dare not admit it–you have got to pretend that you are living quite as usual. From the start it tangles you in a net of lies, and even with the lies you can hardly manage it. You stop sending clothes to the laundry, and the laundress catches you in the street and asks you why; you mumble something, and she, thinking you are sending the clothes elsewhere, is your enemy for life. The tobacconist keeps asking why you have cut down your smoking. There are letters you want to answer, and cannot, because stamps are too expensive. And then there are your meals–meals are the worst difficulty of all. Every day at meal-times you go out, ostensibly to a restaurant, and loaf an hour in the Luxembourg Gardens, watching the pigeons. Afterwards you smuggle your food home in your pockets. Your food is bread and margarine, or bread and wine, and even the nature of the food is governed by lies. You have to buy rye bread instead of household bread, because the rye loaves, though dearer, are round and can be smuggled in your pockets. This wastes you a franc a day. Sometimes,
to keep up appearances, you have to spend sixty centimes on a drink, and go correspondingly short of food. Your linen gets filthy, and you run out of soap and razor-blades. Your hair wants cutting, and you try to cut it yourself, with such fearful results that you have to go to the barber after all, and spend the equivalent of a day’s food. All day you are telling lies, and expensive lies.

And Melville at 201:

Call me Ishmael. Some years ago—never mind how long precisely—having little or no money in my purse, and nothing particular to interest me on shore, I thought I would sail about a little and see the watery part of the world. It is a way I have of driving off the spleen and regulating the circulation. Whenever I find myself growing grim about the mouth; whenever it is a damp, drizzly November in my soul; whenever I find myself involuntarily pausing before coffin warehouses, and bringing up the rear of every funeral I meet; and especially whenever my hypos get such an upper hand of me, that it requires a strong moral principle to prevent me from deliberately stepping into the street, and methodically knocking people’s hats off—then, I account it high time to get to sea as soon as I can. This is my substitute for pistol and ball. With a philosophical flourish Cato throws himself upon his sword; I quietly take to the ship. There is nothing surprising in this. If they but knew it, almost all men in their degree, some time or other, cherish very nearly the same feelings towards the ocean with me.

George Orwell

By thomasfarley01

Business writer and graphic arts gadfly.

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