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Early to rise

Someone once asked me…

Why I would, so often…

(at least in copy)…

Use so many…

One-line paragraphs…

And so many… well… of these things: “…”

Of course, the above is exaggerated.

But there’s no getting around it…

Many copywriters really do use a lot of one-line paragraphs.

Or even one-word sentences.

Why?

Let me explain…

Imagine that you are reading, say, an e-zine that you happen to subscribe to. Much like Early to Rise, for example. You love it as ever, but you’ve noted quietly to yourself — in those deep, dark hours of the night when you lie in bed thanking the heavens for all good things — a new and disturbing change in said e-zine.

Namely that the e-zine editor seems to have lost the key marked “return” on his keyboard.

Now all his paragraphs are long, even formidable, having gone from one line, two lines, or even the occasional three to five lines, all the way up to 10 lines, 12 lines, or, God forbid, entire pages of lines with no visual break where you might rest your eyes and take a little ocular breather now and again — something essential when you set out to read vast tomes that present weighty ideas, especially those limited, as most text today usually is, to black print on white for the bulk of the message; a problem only compounded if the same said editor has also lost his key marked “.” as well.

See what just happened?

My guess is that you had to go back and read that paragraph a couple times just to stay with the thread. You may even have gone back once to check whether it is, indeed, all one long and rambling sentence.

How easy was it for you to read that paragraph? I’ll guess again: not very.

Of course, there are lots of writers who live for that long, unwieldy style. Many of them work for law firms and city governments.

But even a few famous fiction writers love to get away with long sentences, uninterrupted by something so plebian as punctuation or manual line breaks.

Take author Jonathan Coe, who pounded out a 13,955-word sentence in his 2001 novel The Rotter’s Club. Then there’s the Polish novel with the translated title Gates of Paradise, which includes a 40,000-word sentence. If you’re really a glutton for punishment, go for the Czech novel that’s one sentence start to finish.

Copywriters — the good ones — just don’t do things that way.

For one, it’s just too tough for people to read big blocks of text. They look foreboding.

So we opt instead for smaller lines, shorter sentences randomly interspersed, and tight punchy ideas… because they let our readers breathe while reading.

Shorter paragraphs, words, and sentences don’t slow readers down. They can even egg a reader onward, because it’s no big feat to take in “just one more line”… “and one more”… until he’s finished reading the column, the page, or the entire piece you’ve written.

The biggest reason for writing mostly in short, compact lines is that this style mimics the way we speak. And good copy almost always wants to sound conversational.

To see what I mean, try taping your next conversation.

Or read plays and screenplays.

And listen closely to the dialogue in a (good) movie.

It’s quick. It’s tight. It’s clear.

And in copy, you’re better off writing the same way.

When the writing is breezy, uncomplicated, and conversational, it also feels more accessible. But when it’s cursed by big fat blocks of text and sentences choked with dependent clauses, long paragraphs that are grammatically perfect but dense, readers can get scared off in a hurry.

To sum up:

  • Please DO use line breaks in your copy. And your e-mails. And your blogs, e-zines, plus anything else you want to have that “easy-to-read” feel.
  • Please DO use those breaks judiciously. Sometimes with a one-liner. Sometimes with three lines. And yeah, sure, sometimes with a five-line heifer. But rarely more.
  • Be sure, too, to vary the blocks so you’ve got some long. Some short. But with no discernible (distracting) predictability.
  • Remember how you learned, back in school, to always present your paragraphs as “thesis, body, conclusion?” Well… don’t do that. Learn it, but then avoid it most of the time. At least in copy.
  • Instead, imagine a strand of thread stitched through each paragraph block. Even the one-liner visual breaks. Just as you look to jump that white gap between paragraphs, ask yourself… “Where am I going to put my next stitch?”
  • Remember how your teacher told you never to start sentences with “but,” “because,” or “and”" Forget that too. At least some of the time. In real conversation, we break this rule often.
  • If you’ve ever looked longingly at your “;” key, purge that urge right now. Really. It’s not recommended. And back away from dependent clauses as well. You’re usually better off clipping each sentence at a single idea. Then starting the next sentence where you left off.
  • What else? One- or two-word questions are a nice way, sometimes, to urge your reader onward.
  • Beware of format when you make your paragraph breaks. Too many one-liners in succession, for instance, look funny in a two- or three-column layout. Equally, a three-line paragraph in a letter becomes a very long block when you go to columns. If you can mark up a post-production draft, scan for lines that need re-breaking.
  • A freebie: Line-breaks count in headlines and subheads too. Visually, you want one or two lines. Three at most. Usually of equal length, but do try to start new lines with verbs, numbers, or otherwise alluring bits of text. Never with throwaway words.

Sound about right?

Let’s hope so.

[Ed. Note: For more tips on what rules to follow and what rules to throw out the window when writing copy, check out Early to Rise's Information Marketing Bootcamp this November. Copy is one of the things that will make or break your online business, so it's a major part of the program. You'll learn from experts who are working and making money for themselves and their clients today (people like John Forde, a past presenter) -- not professional speakers who go from conference to conference.

Bootcamp won't be officially offered for several months. But you can reserve your spot -- and get VIP seating, access to speakers, and more -- today. Make sure you don't miss out and sign up now. This event will sell out.

And be sure to sign up for John Forde's weekly Copywriter's Roundtable. It's one of the longest running e-letters for marketers and copywriters (online since 2001)... and it's free. You can sign up here, where you'll also get a free report.]

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COMMENTS

  • http://www.nyih.org Mark

    This is a great example of how to have a congruent message.

    You applied the rules and demonstrated them at the same time.

    Excellent writing.

    Very good lessons as well

    Keep up the great work John!