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Quick Tip: Embrace the White Space

You could write The Great American Blog Post (or Australian, or German, or Vietnamese…), but if design and layout issues…

You could write The Great American Blog Post (or Australian, or German, or Vietnamese…), but if design and layout issues make it difficult to read, it’s not going to get read.  A busy background, oddly-placed photos, and colored text can all get between your message and the reader, but one of the biggest readability culprits is white space — or lack thereof.

Let us illustrate. This part may be a little painful, but bear with me:

You could write The Great American Blog Post (or Australian, or German, or Vietnamese…), but if design and layout issues make it difficult to read, it’s not going to get read.  A busy background, oddly-placed photos, and colored text can all get between your message and the reader, but one of the biggest readability culprits is white space — or lack thereof. Whether on a printed page or on screen, it’s challenging to read long, continuous blocks of text. Our eyes can only scan so many lines before we start to lose our place in the text; were we seven lines in, or eight? When this happens, we have to backtrack to re-orient ourselves, taking us out of the reading flow. Not only do the words start to run together, but ideas muddy as well — it becomes difficult for readers to parse the threads of your story or argument when there’s no visual distinction between each point. (Remember the five-paragraph essay format you learned in elementary school? There’s a reason we still teach it! Not only does it force you to clarify your own thinking, it creates a flowing argument that’s easy for readers to follow.) If your goal is a stream-of-consciousness piece that makes the reader feel uneasy, long paragraphs might be an interesting stylistic choice. If your goal is a readable, easily followed post, embrace the white space. You might be surprised at how few lines it actually takes before your eye starts getting confused. Depending on how many different ideas your post introduces or how complex your story is, even five or six lines can be too many. Eight is pushing it, and by the time you’ve hit ten or eleven, lots of readers have given up, despite your sparkling prose and rapier wit. (And sometimes, a single, stand-alone line makes a bigger splash than the world’s most finely-crafted sentence.) If you find yourself defaulting to long paragraphs, take a critical look at what you’ve written. Whenever you find yourself introducing a new element, hit enter; it may not result in a perfectly spaced piece, but it’ll be a good start. You’ll end up with something that’s easier for readers to get lost in — in a good way! — and it may even help you think through your post more effectively.

See what I mean? That was 22 lines, and I wasn’t even comfortable writing it — I felt myself coming unmoored from the post, and having to constantly re-read to figure out what I’d said and where I’d wanted to go next. I’m sorry I made you read it.

Let’s try that again:

You could write The Great American Blog Post (or Australian, or German, or Vietnamese…), but if design and layout issues make it difficult to read, it’s not going to get read.  A busy background, oddly-placed photos, and colored text can all get between your message and the reader, but one of the biggest readability culprits is white space — or lack thereof.

Whether on a printed page or on screen, it’s challenging to read long, continuous blocks of text. Our eyes can only scan so many lines before we start to lose our place in the text; were we seven lines in, or eight? When this happens, we have to backtrack to re-orient ourselves, taking us out of the reading flow.

Not only do the words start to run together, but ideas muddy as well — it becomes difficult for readers to parse the threads of your story or argument when there’s no visual distinction between each point. (Remember the five-paragraph essay format you learned in elementary school? There’s a reason we still teach it! Not only does it force you to clarify your own thinking, it creates a flowing argument that’s easy for readers to follow.) If your goal is a stream-of-consciousness piece that makes the reader feel uneasy, long paragraphs might be an interesting stylistic choice. If your goal is a readable, easily followed post, embrace the white space.

You might be surprised at how few lines it actually takes before your eye starts getting confused. Depending on how many different ideas your post introduces or how complex your story is, even five or six lines can be too many. Eight is pushing it, and by the time you’ve hit ten or eleven, lots of readers have given up, despite your sparkling prose and rapier wit.

(And sometimes, a single, stand-alone line makes a bigger splash than the world’s most finely-crafted sentence.)

If you find yourself defaulting to long paragraphs, take a critical look at what you’ve written. Whenever you find yourself introducing a new element, hit enter; it may not result in a perfectly spaced piece, but it’ll be a good start. You’ll end up with something that’s easier for readers to get lost in — in a good way! — and it may even help you think through your post more effectively.

See?

85 Comments

  1. Good advice a lack of whitespace is almost as bad as no punctuation and it makes you just want to stop reading and scratch your head and wonder just what the heck the person is trying to say its enough to drive you mad and usually you end up moving on as you mentioned

      1. I’m inspired Michele! I went back to my last post and found a paragraph that needed to be divided. And several sentences that could have been compressed further. You have to be careful though. As you’re removing, you may also be tempted to add, ending up with nothing any shorter than what you began with, and in some cases even longer! Of course, this all demands proofreading. Thanks again for your assistance!

  2. Beautifully illustrated. I couldn’t even get through the long paragraph before I found myself scanning, looking for a break. Once I got to the breaks, I started reading again, so it’s a good thing you posted the content twice :-D

    I always find the negative space in art to be as interesting as the positive space. The negative defines the positive, and it gives you space to reflect on the subject the artist is showing us. The more negative space around a subject, the more it stands out.

  3. Thankyouthankyouthankyouthankyouthankyou! Now I want to email this to all my friends who are afraid of the return button!

  4. interesting…I generally stay away from prose, but I do write poetry…I guess the same is true about the stanza as the paragraph…creating an aesthetic for the eye and the mind and making it easier on the reader…I will have to keep this in mind…thank you

  5. Great Post! White Space is the most under used application, not only in writing, but also in ads, videos and conversations. Yes, conversations. When having a conversation, take a breath and let someone else speak, respond, interrupt, it makes the conversation much more interesting.

    1. Thanks for that! I can’t count the number of times I’ve tried to explain give-and-take in a conversation! It feels good that someone else also recognizes it.

    2. +1 to this! Without the pause, there’s no mental space to think, and therefore no way to move a conversation forward in a meaningful way.

      1. Thank you for a very good post, very good in that the message it extends.
        I put my thanks here because like your previous readers I am often mesmerised when I observe others conversations (something that , in itself, is very beneficial). The frequency with which people ‘communicate’ simply swapping ‘And I…’ stories is quite worrying really.
        Then I catch myself doing it too.

        Then I waffle away in type and even in full agreement and understanding of the importance of ‘space,’ I find myself struggling to format in a reader friendly way.
        Why speak if you do not wish to be heard? Why write if not to be read? OK, there are many reasons and a before my appreciation of your own becomes a whole essay lacking punctuation and spacing..

        At times, too often! I spend time setting, re-reading and editing my message and satisfied I post it to/on WPress. Too often, my formatting and spacing is destroyed. Removed. All spaces filled and each line joined to it’s predecessor. Hmm… Such is life.
        How many words of worth are lost due to our inability to read, listen and give space?

      2. JJBollox said: “Too often, my formatting and spacing is destroyed. Removed. All spaces filled and each line joined to it’s predecessor.”

        That happens to me when I try to use “Block Quote”, so I use italics instead. I don’t know if that helps any.

      3. JJBollox, do you write directly into WordPress, or write in a word processor and paste into WordPress? That often causes formatting issues, but what you describe shouldn’t happen if you write directly into the post editor.

  6. I always try to keep my paragraphs at least 3 or 4 sentences, or even less. Even if I think I might be just rambling I still manage to write a paragraph that’s short enough, yet informative enough.

    Though in general, I like to have things short, sweet, and to the point, even when I write poetry.

  7. Agree it’s much easier to read but a paragraph length is determined by the subject – new subject/aspect = new paragraph. Virginia Woolf could do long paragraphs with interest.. Is it our modern day lack of attention span that might be relevant here? p.s. I need to include more negative/white space around photo subjects

    1. I don’t know if it’s attention span or what, but with me, white space looks inviting. Otherwise I feel like I’m going to be too overwhelmed with words to make it to the bottom of the page.

      1. Hmmm. That’s interesting and is something that’s never occurred to me. Thanks for sharing that!

    2. Totally agree — paragraph length should be driven by content. When you engrossed in a single idea, it’s easier to keep reading. That being said, I think even Woolf’s compelling longer passages would be more challenging on-screen. But yes — let your content drive the form.

      1. Michelle this is something I’d never considered – are longer paragraphs more readable in printed form rather than on screen. If so, will kindles etc determine how we write in future?

      2. I think so, though I’m no scientist. I think something about the bounded size of the printed page, which you hold in your hand, makes it easier to stay oriented.

        I’m sure someone’s done a study on this — probably more than one someone.

  8. Three cheers for the white space!!! And now, a word about the WHITE space. White is our friend. So are very pale colors if the text is black. I was reading a wonderfully written blog yesterday, but it nearly gave me a migraine. It had a lime green background with tiny white type. Thought my retinas were going to fry out!

    1. I know a lot of programmers swear by green/amber text on a dark background as ultimately being easier on the eyes, but that’s a transition i haven’t been able to make yet!

      1. I recall loving the green/amber/dark background scheme on those old CRT monitors. It was sort of relaxing and seemed to give me a feeling of working with depth. That was way back when, though.

  9. Absolutely true! But what about wordpress’s developers. They should help making posting easier. The preview window is too small to move pictures around in the layout- it is frustrating to say the least. The pictures never end up where one would like them to be…

  10. Oh, and here I thought I was just being anal! Huzzah for validation!

    As an English major/teacher/lover, I tend to be verbose but when I started blogging, I realized this was not necessarily a good thing. So I started hitting “enter”/update/preview incessantly to try to find the right balance of space to text although I felt guilty throwing English conventions out the window.

    Adding breaks may not be grammatically correct if one thinks of them as “paragraph breaks” but makes perfect sense in the context of “white space”. :)

    http://www.myclosetcatalogue.com

  11. Great points. All to often do I skip an article when it’s just a wall of text. It’s amazing what hitting enter can do.

  12. Yes! It’s so difficult to read when people don’t use paragraphs! Always start a new paragraph when starting a new point.

    One of my other favorite rules of writing is from Orson Scott Card; he said, “When I’m done writing, I go back and get rid of half what I wrote. Then I go back and get rid of half of what’s left.” I try to follow this rule religiously.

  13. I absolutely having white space. I try to keep my paragraphs to a few sentences, and when I can I create a bulleted list – it’s much easier to get information across to the reader.

  14. Great point, well put. I’m now off to re-read my blog to see how guilty I am!

  15. Rule of thumb for designing screens to read: 50% OR MORE white space, which includes margins, space between paragraphs, lines, pictures and text and so on. It’s not as much as it sounds like and it makes it possible to read easily. Less really IS more where on-screen graphics are concerned. It’s no less true on the printed page, by the way.

  16. I do love short paragraphs. And reasonably short blog posts, too. I find myself losing interest in posts that go over about 800 words unless they are riveting.

  17. I have so much love for this tip. I’ve read so many stories and blog posts that have no paragraphs and I always comment on it. I’ve even had authors defend their lack of paragraphs saying that’s an editor’s job.

  18. Excellent post. I simply cannot read blogs that are like that, and also the ones where all the text is centered, or there is crazy backgrounds, or the font/font color is too hard to read, etc…

  19. I try to break big paragraphs into short ones when posting. I thought I was the only one who had problems reading those big paragraphs. :D
    For big chunks of lines I use the caret browsing feature in firefox which can be enabled by F7 key. Using the cursor to follow the words through the lines really helps to read through the blocks of words and lines.

    Nice post, i will share this with my friends.

  20. Cutting the post down into smaller increments or paragraphs separated by whitespace has more eye appeal, but also makes sense in the overall literal presentation of a subject.

    A final summarized line or thought to end with would be like adding a maraschino cherry to the topping, or frosted cake. :)

  21. Great advise. It’s almost like a person that just keeps talking without taking a break. You just want to excuse yourself or simply walk away.

    So here’s to you!

  22. Thank you so much! As a means of critical thinking, I looked at my post from yesterday. What I thought was short and punchy turned out to be two blocks of twelve lines each. There may be self gratification in rambling, but brevity tends to win the day.

    1. Huzzah! Depending on your theme and layout, a post can end up taking up many more lines on your blog than in the post editing window — it’s always good to double check.

  23. I’d like to emphasize that long posts can make for an enjoyable read as well if, as you say, appropriate white space is given for the Reader to encapsulate the Author’s thought. Also, those thoughts should be simplified, but also interesting enough to keep the Reader going.

    Interesting topic that you chose as well, attracts more Readers like Current Events, Recipes, intriguing Web Sites etc… Yet sometimes the odd Rant, poem, or even more especially, blogging on the humorous side can be health too. All I can seem to come up with is::” It depends.” LOL!

    True enough! We are not just learning what to blog, but how to blog it… There. That was a blog right there! If I could say any one thing though, it would have to be that it’s negative emotions we have to avoid triggering. I look forward to what you have in store for tomorrow. That’s positive. YACK, YACK, YACK , AND ON AND ON AND ON! :O)

  24. Oh how I wish I’d found this a while back – when teaching English in secondary school, and having science or other study reporst and essays submitted all in one block of runon text. I’ve shared this to the Rotorua Writers group on facebook, it’s so “nice” (as in ‘precise’)

  25. This is so true! Some blogs make it feel like the main text and all the extras are fighting each other for attention. What do you all feel about one sentence per line? I’ve seen a few blogs like that, and am not sure about it.

    1. It depends on the content. Generally, I tend to find posts that are entirely single-line harder to read as well — sometimes, you WANT thoughts to be visually linked. That being said, a well-placed single line can have a lot of punch.

  26. A few weeks ago the daily post was on backgrounds. So I went in and tried a few. None of them looked good — too busy!
    I tried black for a few days (it was white behind the text, but the sides were black.) It looked okay for awhile, but I ultimately went back and made the whole thing white, just because I liked the clean, spare look of it. Thanks for affirming my choice! :-)

  27. I agree the second version of your post is much easier to read, but I do worry about making paragraph breaks where they don’t grammatically belong just because it looks better on a screen.

    1. The content is always the driver, so I agree, breaks need to make sense with the grammar and overall goals of the piece. It’s more about separating ideas an giving them breathing room than about simply breaking up text.

  28. This post prompted me to take a look at my ancient archives and not to toot my own horn too much (well maybe a little) my form and content have certainly improved. Practice makes…well…not perfect, but certainly better.

  29. I am new to blogging; although, not new to writing! I have always wondered about wordy paragraphs. Now I see the Light! Thank you for making it so crystal clear!

  30. I try to do those very things. When I get tired of a blog template, I try to find one that isn’t so busy. Then again, I like to have one that represents ME! Good post, thanks for the advice.

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