Hmmm. In the good old days of pencil and paper or typewriter…better yet, my high school English teacher days(!) a paragraph better include at least 3 sentences supporting one idea, a micro-topic of the central theme of the page or report or essay.
The general message sounded on web copy goes something like this: your reader’s attention span has been hacked to bits by 21st century media onslaught, so you better make whatever you write really snappy and engaging and if you can keep it short–bonus.
So you’re in the middle of doing your thing online, delivering the copy and suddenly you get really nervous about the length of a couple paragraphs. “OMG that paragraph is 5 sentences long…no one’s going to read that!”
Or you have been taking notice of how short some online sales letters paragraphs are…sometimes one or two sentences long at best.
What’s correct? Do you remain a loyal apostle to your English or college prof’s preaching about proper style for a paragraph? OR do you defer to the collective brain of the new web copywriters snipping paragraphs into one sentence spoonfuls like crazy ginsu chefs on an all night shopping network?
Exactly how many sentences should you aim for in a paragraph of webcopy?
For me, it depends on the job or project.
I consider the target audience.
Is the content intended to be brief or task-oriented? Then abbreviated paragraphs, maybe more akin to directions, step-by-step instructions, might be a best choice.
Certainly a big focus in developing web copy and content is to make it as user-accessible as possible. Paragraphs that might traditionally include a comma-separated listing of items, for example, would be rendered instead as a bulleted list and instructions as a numbered list for delivery on the web.
More academic mediums, such as online reports, whitepapers, journalistic feature articles or essays will have paragraphs that are more traditional–the 3 or more sentence structure.
That all said, the point is not counting out a minimum number of sentences to include in a paragraph of digital content, but to be more mindful of the task at hand by asking the following questions:
- Can I pare down what I have already written? Snappier more concise sentences and paragraphs are preferred.
- Can content be developed in such a way that I can include eye-catching features, such as a bulleted or numbered list, a blockquote, bold text or even exchange some text for an image or video?
Today’s web audience is scanning first, reading more in-depth second. Unless they are specifically looking for and expecting a report or essay, chances are your better bet is to shorten paragraphs, work in images, audio and video as part of a packaged page/site experience and keep it simple (and short).