This is a big step for you. After all these years, after all the thinking, considering, pondering, planning, writing, rewriting, editing, and polishing, you’re finally ready to publish your first blog post. Maybe you’re publishing it on your own blog. Maybe it’s going up on LinkedIn Pulse or Medium. Or maybe you’ve blogged before, but casually, and you suddenly got the opportunity to be a contributor to Forbes, Huffington Post, or Inc., and you want to up your game. Regardless, it’s a big deal. But you have a nagging doubt.
Is your post really, really ready for primetime?
Let’s make this easy–yes, it’s ready. It was probably ready 10 revisions ago. In all likelihood you’ve overthought the whole thing and worked on it too much. No, don’t go and revise it yet again, hear me out! Ask yourself these three questions:
- Did I spell check?
- Did I read it through at least once, quickly, just to make sure it flows and sounds halfway normal?
- Did I format it for maximum impact?
If you did the first two, but you’re not sure about the third, then this post is for you. This post is not about what content you should have in your blog post, but how that content should look. If there is any overarching theme to my advice, it’s to break it up.
Break it Up
Why do you need to break up your content?
- It makes your writing look interesting. If it’s your first blog post readers don’t know you enough to trust you. If you’re J.K. Rowling or Bill Gates or Taylor Swift you can write whatever you want and format it however you want and people will read it. But you’re not, so you need to make your writing as reader-friendly as possible, and writing that is broken up looks more interesting than a big block of text.
- It helps a reader keep her place. Otherwise if she gets distracted for a second it might take her a minute to figure out where she was.
- It emphasizes your most important points. A block of text is monotone. Breaking up your text can make it sing like a Shakespearean sonnet, putting weight on what matters most.
But don’t take my word for it. Usability expert Jakob Nielsen’s 1997 study on how people read on the web is as true today as it was then. As he summed it up, “They don’t.” He continues “People rarely read Web pages word by word; instead, they scan the page, picking out individual words and sentences.”
He who has a why to live for can bear almost any how. — Friedrich Nietzsche
Or as I like to reword that quote, he who has a big enough why can figure out the how. You now know why you should break up your text, let’s dive into tactics and talk how.
9 Ways to Break Up (Your Text)
How long should a paragraph be, or how many sentences should your paragraph include? Ann Handley, content marketer extraordinaire and author of Everybody Writes: Your Go-To Guide to Creating Ridiculously Good Content, says in her book that “The ideal length for a paragraph is between 3 and 4 lines, maximum.” but she then notes that “even one will do.”
2. Line Breaks
This might seem like a repeat of #1–after all, once you break a line aren’t you starting a new paragraph? Yes, but many people have questions about when it’s the right time for that line break. Length is one determinant, so once that paragraph gets to 3-4 lines start thinking about starting the next one, but there is also the matter of relevance. Don’t insert a line break if it feels unnatural, even if you go past 3-4 lines. And don’t hold back on inserting one if it feels natural to break after just one line. That’s the only real rule I’ve found that makes sense–make it feel natural.
In a post on Copyblogger entitled 8 Incredibly Simple Ways to Get More People to Read Your Content author Pamela Wilson says “You can often make a post more compelling just by numbering your main points.” C’mon, everybody’s doing it, not just BuzzFeed. Here’s a recent homepage screenshot from Inc.
Numbered lists are a natural way to organize thoughts, that’s why they work. If you want to fight it be my guest, but don’t fight it just because everyone else is doing it. Everyone is using round wheels on their cars, but that doesn’t mean you need to go out and buy square wheels.
Subheads are headlines within a post or article. They’re generally larger, bolder text, and they explain what the reader will get by reading that section. “Use subheads to make your post scannable,” says Kevan Lee at Buffer in the post The Anatomy of a Perfect Blog Post: The Data on Headlines, Length, Images and More. I usually write out my entire post, then go back and add in subheads afterward. This keeps me from getting distracted by formatting when I’m working fast to get all my thoughts out on the page. But occasionally I’ll have a great idea for a subhead while I’m writing so I put it in right then and there.
In What Makes The Perfect Blog Post on Blogpros, James Parsons published the results of an analysis they did of 100 top blog posts across a number of popular sites, including Forbes, Mashable, KISSMetrics and SearchEngineWatch, showing that 84% of the top blog posts analyzed included at least one image, while the average was 3.2 images per post. Here’s a big, helpful infographic to really break things up.
Want text to stand out? Bold it. But don’t make it bold and ALL CAPS OR PEOPLE WILL THINK YOU’RE YELLING AT THEM!!!! Don’t use bold text too much or you risk it not standing out anymore.
Quotes always break up your text, whether they’re inline, as in “To bold, or not to bold…” or blocked. What’s a blocked quote? Like this:
Begin each day by telling yourself: Today I shall be meeting with interference, ingratitude, insolence, disloyalty, ill-will, and selfishness – all of them due to the offenders’ ignorance of what is good or evil. But for my part I have long perceived the nature of good and its nobility, the nature of evil and its meanness, and also the nature of the culprit himself, who is my brother (not in the physical sense, but as a fellow creature similarly endowed with reason and a share of the divine); therefore none of those things can injure me, for nobody can implicate me in what is degrading. Neither can I be angry with my brother or fall foul of him; for he and I were born to work together, like a man’s two hands, feet or eyelids, or the upper and lower rows of his teeth. To obstruct each other is against Nature’s law – and what is irritation or aversion but a form of obstruction. — Marcus Aurelius, Meditations
According to the Chicago Manual of Style, block quotations should be used when there are five or more lines in the quote. Moreover, a blocked quotation is not enclosed in quotation marks, and an extra line precedes it as well as follows it, and you know that’s a good thing for breaking things up.
Does this mean I can’t use a blocked quote unless it’s at least five lines long? If you do, I won’t tell anyone. Sometimes it makes things stand out more, and that’s all you’re going for. I did it at the beginning of this post with my Nietzsche quote, and I’d do it again.
That which does not kill us makes us stronger. – Friedrich Nietzsche
So far, I don’t hear any police sirens.
There are other reasons to quote people, books, movies, etc. in your writing; 1) it lends credibility, 2) it makes your writing more interesting intellectually (not just visually), 3) when you quote people in your posts they tend to share it on their social media channels, giving you that much more exposure. I bet this Aurelius guy above is composing his tweet right now after I gave him that big ol’ blocked quote of exposure.
Like quotes, links add credibility because theoretically they link to something that proves what you are stating in your post is true, or at least presents compelling evidence. But since links are frequently underlined and in a different color they also break up the monotony of the text.
I use italics a lot more than I use bold text, at least within the body of a paragraph. In fact, other than in this post I can’t remember when I last used bold text within a paragraph.
I regularly use italics to clarify what I’m saying or add tone, as in “You’re thanking me for writing this post? Oh no, thank you for reading it!” The italicized text does the same job as bold text–it breaks things up within sentences, attracting the eye and giving it more to play with.
Breaking it Down
Everyone has a system that works for them, and if they don’t, they’ll find it. Don’t let anybody tell you your writing has to be a certain way–it doesn’t. Your writing needs to make movies in the minds of the audience you’re targeting, movies that influence them the way you want–that’s all. If your writing does that, you’re a good writer. If it doesn’t do that, it doesn’t matter how correct it is. What we know about most humans is that they seem to like text that is broken up. But that doesn’t mean you can’t break that rule, too. But if you’re just starting out, I’d say break it up until you find a good reason not to. And yes, wanting to experiment is as good a reason as any.
Has breaking up your writing worked for you to improve results? Or has it failed? Either way, I’d love to hear about your experiences in the comments below.Liked it? Share it!