Why Simple Writing Works Better

Someone once asked me…

Why I would, so often…

(At least in copy)…

Use so many…

One-line sentences…

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.


Let’s explain using a demonstration.

Let’s imagine you are reading, say, an ezine that you happen to subscribe to. Much like the Copywriter’s Roundtable, in fact. You have noted quietly to yourself, in those deep, dark hours of the night when you lie in bed thanking the heavens for all good things, that something about said e-zine has changed.

For some reason, the e-zine editor has 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 ten lines, twelve lines, or God forbid, entire pages of lines with no visual break wherefore you might rest thy eyes and, for heaven’s sake, 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 (I’m sure you can imagine; it’s no pleasant affair, and only compounded if the same said author has also lost his key marked “.” as well.

See what’s happened?

My guess is that you had to go back and read that a couple times just to stay with the thread. You may even have gone back once to check whether — yes — it’s all one long and rambling sentence. How easy for you is that to read? 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 government. 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 to read big blocks of text. They look foreboding on the page.

So we opt instead for smaller lines, shorter sentences randomly interspersed, and tight punchy ideas… because they let readers breathe while reading. They also don’t slow readers down. And can even egg a reader onward, because it doesn’t look so difficult, then, to take in “just one more line”… “and one more”… until he’s finished reading the column, the page, the promotion.

The biggest reason, of course, is that writing mostly in short, compact lines mimics the way we speak. And good copy almost always wants to sound as close as possible to the way we speak. To see what I mean, try taping your next conversation. Or read plays and screenplays. Listen to the dialogue in a (good) movie.

In copy, it’s often the same.

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 emails. And your blogs, ezines, 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 for 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?” Yeah, 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 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 the dependent clause habit 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 egg 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.


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