Please, please, please: Shorter sentences, shorter paragraphs, more white space

April 29, 2019

I think I am noticing a trend in news writing these days. My only evidence are the words I can count on my fingers. It feels to me, at least in newspapers (but it may be true online as well) that the sentences and paragraphs are getting longer. If I am right, an unfortunate product of this trend is less white space.

Within a text, white space is created by paragraphs. Short paragraphs create more white space. Long ones, especially in narrow columns, cast a gray shadow on the page. Without reading a word, readers see tombstones with the epitaph: “Heavy lifting.”

This dense packing of words presents itself not only in the body of stories, but even in the leads. An old nickname for this problem is “the suitcase lead.” The writer takes all the key elements, stuffs it into a single paragraph, sometimes a single sentence, and slams it shut. If it doesn’t fit, the writer sits on it till it closes.

In the age of the text message, this trend seems odd.

Let me offer two examples, both taken from a newspaper I read on Tuesday, April 23, 2019. (Shakespeare’s birthday!) I can find examples from almost any newspaper on any given day, so I am not going to name the writers or the newspapers. I am not in the business of shaming hard-working reporters. Both stories are well-reported and worthy of their placement at the top of news sections: page one and the business page.

The first story has the headline: Hispanic voters gain clout. The first sentence (which is also a paragraph) is 41 words long. The second paragraph has two sentences: 39 + 25 equals 64 words. In the next paragraph, I count 43 words in the first sentence + 43 more in the sentence after that. That’s 86 words in a single paragraph. That’s 191 words crammed into three paragraphs.

The second story is titled: Retirement age losing meaning. More and more American workers haven’t saved enough for a comfortable retirement, so they continue to work beyond the age of 65. As a working septuagenarian, I read the report with interest.

Then I counted the paragraphs: 11. Then I counted the words in each paragraph: 62, 34, 67, 77, 51, 32, 28, 81, 44, 26, 29. Most of these paragraphs comprise one or two sentences, so sentences tend to be long as well. A refreshing exception comes in the last paragraph, where the sentence length is 16, 5, 7.

Enjoy it:

Ghilarducci’s rough estimate of what a typical college-educated professional must amass to retire fairly comfortably? “Over $1 million or 2.” No wonder more people are working longer.

I must add an escape hatch for writers everywhere. It’s possible that long paragraphs are the result of editors combining two shorter paragraphs into a longer one.

Writers may cram words into suitcase leads. But editors cram them into shrinking news holes. It’s an old and unworthy trick of editing to make a story fit into the available space by cutting the so-called widow lines – those half-lines at the end of paragraphs. Sometimes this works by smashing paragraphs together.

The effects are predictable: fewer partial lines, less white space, more impenetrable blocks of gray.

Page designers, of course, think of white space as white gold. But so should writers. I coach writers to think of white space as a powerful form of punctuation, a visual form of ventilation.

More paragraphs, generating more white space, also create more points of emphasis. Let’s test out this lead paragraph, which has some nice touches:

Just as single-income families began to vanish in the last century, many of America’s elderly are now forgoing retirement for the same reason: They don’t have enough money. Rickety social safety nets, inadequate retirement savings plans and sky high health care costs are all conspiring to make the concept of leaving the workforce something to be more feared than desired.

That’s a thick paragraph to fit in a thin newspaper column. It falls on the eyes like a cataract and  hides the most important sentence: “They don’t have enough money.”

By dividing the paragraph into two, I take that sentence out of hiding and place it where readers can best see it – right before the white space:

Just as single-income families began to vanish in the last century, many of America’s elderly are now forgoing retirement for the same reason: They don’t have enough money.

Rickety social safety nets, inadequate retirement saving plans and sky high health care costs are all conspiring to make the concept of leaving the workforce something to be more feared than desired.

Not only does the reader now have visual relief – a resting place in a passage packed with information – but now two good phrases stand in the spotlight of white space: “They don’t have enough money” and “something to be more feared than desired.”

I am not arguing here for an endless chain of one-sentence paragraphs. Variety in length works for both sentences and paragraphs.

I was about to hand in this story when I stumbled upon another newspaper page that contained three news digest items inside the local section. No bylines. A photo, a headshot. Three short headlines. No problem so far. But then I noticed that each item was delivered in a single paragraph. I counted the words in an item about a hit-and-run. It ran 60 lines in two thin columns, about five words per line. That’s 300 words shoehorned into one paragraph. No white space.

Is anyone listening? Writers? Editors? Designers? How do you make hard facts easy reading? Paste this advice from writing coach Don Murray near your computer: “Shorter words, shorter sentences, shorter paragraphs at the points of greatest complexity.” Remember the white space.

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  • I am a retired copy editor and TOTALLY AGREE. Sentences have gotten out of hand. Some of the sentences I have seen lately are runons or grammatically a nightmare. I don’t blame editors for this, as you do. I attribute it to the firing of copy editors by many major media companies. It is a crime. It diminishes the product. It is financially foolish in the long run because the product suffers.