A couple of weeks back, the Friend Friday topic was Blogging Reflections, and reading through people’s answers on what turned them off a blog post, length kept getting mentioned. I was surprised to hear how common a complaint this was, because I would never consider it a problem. Or to be more specific: Unnecessary length should be avoided, but length in and of itself is not a problem. Some of my most successful posts in terms of views and comments are very long, even by my own wordy standards. I strongly believe that you can take people with you through quite a lot of material, with the use of a few simple tricks.
So this is what today’s post is about: Hints and tips for how to make long posts more readable. I’m just going to launch straight into it:
Keep it concise
Like I said, it is important to avoid unnecessary length. A successful post should be concise (which is not the same as short) and that means avoiding two things:
(1) repetition – noone wants to read the same things three times, expressed in three very slightly different ways
(2) tangents – tangents can be charming and fun to read in some circumstances, but if the post is in danger of getting too long it’s best to pick a topic and stick with it.
The way I write is that I usually start off with a stream of consciousness rant about my chosen topic, and I usually end up with plenty of repetition and random tangents. And then I cut, cut, cut stuff out, and sometimes if it hurts my heart too much to just delete it, I turn the cut stuff into another post. But I’m ruthless in my editing! For example, this post on the oppressiveness of fashion was originally about three times the length, and had lots of sub-points about racism and sexism in the fashion industry, the sustainability of fast fashion and so on. But I took them all out because they were getting in the way of what I really wanted to say.
Keep it clear
People are generally much more likely to read something if it is clearly written, regardless of length. And I can guarantee noone wants to plow through a lengthy post if it’s also difficult to read. There are many rules and pointers for writing clearly out there, which I won’t go into here, but for me the single most important thing is to avoid long sentences. Long sentences are usually difficult to read and understand, particularly in English. In other languages, it possible to go on for entire paragraphs without ever placing a full stop, but in English anything longer than two lines really isn’t advisable. So keep them simple, and your readers will thank you.
Make your structure easy to follow
In my experience as a reader, I am much more likely to persist with a long post if I know from the start how it’s going to be structured. I want to know where in the text I am finding myself as I read.
One way of doing this is to follow the classic introduction – main part – conclusion structure: tell your reader what you’re gonna tell them, tell them, then tell them what you’ve told them. This is undergrad essay 101. Obviously a blog post isn’t an essay, and tends to be much less formal/more chatty in style. Unless you’re a complete perfectionist, you’ll also be spending much less time on it. But this kind of structure can still be helpful.
In terms of the introduction, it’s important to get to the point of what your post is about fairly quickly. By all means have a chatty anecdote to kick things off (I often do this, as I find starting posts quite hard), but I’d recommend saying what your topic is in the first paragraph, or at the start of the second one.
For the conclusion, again I’m not talking about a formal ‘In conclusion, I have argued that XXXX’ but it really helps to have a summary of what’s been said or a reminder of the key points. Alternatively, I sometimes highlight my key points and conclusions in bold. That way, readers can scan over them and then decide whether they want to read the whole thing properly. Here is an example of a post that both concludes at the end and highlights key points in bold.
To keep the structure in the main part of the post clear, leave signposts around the place to let your reader know where you are. The most obvious signposts are headings, and I use these liberally, because they also break up the text (see below).
Another good way of signposting is to number the things you’re talking about. There’s a reason list posts like ‘ten things I learned at London Fashion week’ are popular, but you needn’t even go as far as numbering everything in your post. Just the odd bit of numbering works too – like I did in the first paragraph under ‘keep it concise’.
A more subtle form of signposting is via the opening words of paragraph. Each new paragraph should link to the one before it in some way, and it should be clear what that relationship is, eg. whether you are changing topic, continuing to talk about what you talked about in the previous paragraph, presenting an opposing point of view and so on. Opening phrases like ‘However’, ‘Another thing that illustrates this point’ etc. are more typical of formal writing, but come in handy in blog posts too.
Break up the text
This is probably the single most important thing. Continuous text can be really offputting and can make a post seem really long even if it actually isn’t. I therefore try to avoid paragraphs longer than 6-8 lines and I also use an arsenal of little formatting things to break up the text:
* bullet points (numbered or not)
* empty space
* bold type
A couple of things I would avoid though is to tinker with either your font or your font size. Having different types of type usually ends up just looking messy in my opinion.
I also break things up with pictures all the time. Pictures can add a lot of actual length to a post, especially if they’re big, but they are ideal for breaking up text, because they give the eye and brain a chance to deal with something other than writing. See for example this post or this one. The latter is really very long, but I think manages to still be very readable (in my opinion!).
So there you have it: keep things concise, sentences short, think about your structure and signpost it well, and break up chunks of text into smaller digestible bits, and you’re well on your way to making long posts (or any posts, really) readable, fun and informative.
What do you think? Do you use any of these things? Any other ones? Do you read long posts or do you find them too much regardless of how well formatted they are?
Picture via here.