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Perennial Favorites: Embrace the White Space

When it comes to creating a pleasant reading experience for your visitors, few things matter more than your post layout.

Whether you write succinct music reviews or longform essays, experimental poetry or serialized romance novels, readability matters — a lot. In this post from our archives, Michelle makes the case for posts that are (literally) easy on the eyes.

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 28 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?

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  1. Michelle– I am curious why this rule of thumb never seems to hold true for bound books, i.e classic novels? Wouldn’t a reader’s eye get tired just the same as on a blog? I’ve always wondered why people never threw down classics like The Great Gatsby and exclaimed, “That Fitzgerald! Can’t he ever break up long blocks of text with some white space?” Also does white space HAVE to be white. Any research on the readability factor on blogs with colored backgrounds where the print itself is white? As usual, great post!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. “White space” is just shorthand for “breathing room between ideas and paragraphs” — whatever color your background is is fine. I can’t speak to research on which color is best, though. Some people who spend a lot of time staring at screen, like programmers, prefer green or amber text on a black background, but that doesn’t mean it’s best for a blog.

      Re: print vs. screen, it’s partly an issue of line length. In bound books, the line length is generally shorter; you rarely have a bound book where the type is more than 6-7 inches across, whereas a screen can go significantly wider. But I suspect it’s also partly an issue of how we’re accustomed to reading books (focused) and screens (skimming).

      Liked by 3 people

    2. Interesting thoughts and a good point. Does this not hold true for books? I think it does but less so, people are expecting to read longer and larger chunks in a book, not so much with blogs.

      Sent from my iPhone

      >

      Liked by 2 people

  2. I am switching from an old flash website that was full of color and lots of moving elements. It was “entertaining” at first but navigating it became very laborious for my readers. Experience has taught me that everything you said is true and as I create my new WordPress blog I will keep your sage advice in mind. Thank you!

    Liked by 1 person

  3. This is great!

    I find that even on paper (old fashioned, I know), I have a hard time digesting long, rambling paragraphs. I sometimes catch myself skipping over them entirely.

    Great illustration for bloggers :)

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Couldn’t agree more, Michelle. The attempt to make things fancy by use of coloured text is particularly ghastly; and animated .gifs are … I can’t think of sufficiently pejorative words.
    I came quite late to appreciate large font size, and that was what made me understand the white space aspect’s importance.
    Automattic staff can reach bloggers like no bloggers can; so I thank you very much for this, endorsing it heartily !

    Liked by 1 person

  5. As an English teacher, I totally agree with this post. I try to teach my students to incorporate white space in their own writing by parsing smaller chunks of information. It is what we have become accustomed to in this new age of technology.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. I agree. As an English teacher, I teach my students to do this in their writing by incorporating smaller chunks of information in their essays. We sort of break paragraphs down into sub-paragraphs.

    It helps them to organize their thoughts better since they have grown up in an age of smaller pieces of information via Twitter posts and Facebook statuses.

    Liked by 1 person

  7. Sometimes I wonder if I break up my thoughts/posts with too MUCH white space. It’s possible that I am not, but one can never be too sure :P also, huge blocks of text is an instant turn off for me. I tend to get bored too quick and not give the author a fair shot. I have to force myself to stick with it.

    Thanks for the post!

    Liked by 1 person