Breaking a post into sections helps you control its rhythm and pacing. Here are three ways to do it effectively.
Reading, like breathing, is a continuous process that’s made up of numerous discrete acts. (If you’re like me, the same is true of eating gummy bears.) Whatever style we write in — from the most traditional to the more experimental — our job as writers is to make the experience so smooth for our readers that they don’t even notice the little seams that hold it all together.
We do this in ways both big and small. We make sure our grammar doesn’t call attention to itself (unless we want it to, like in some forms of poetry). We keep our posts clean, and their format easy on our readers’ eyes. We embrace the screen’s white space.
Dividing your text into smaller units is another way to make the reading flow and engage and push your audience onward. I’m not talking about breaking down walls of text into paragraphs — unless you’re James Joyce you’re hopefully doing this already — but more strategically separating your narrative into its major building blocks.
Typographically, some of the common ways to announce new sections include Roman and Arabic numerals, letters, bullet points, or simple dividers like asterisks (***) or lines (—).
There are many ways to go about this, but let’s leave the world of abstract rules and dive into some concrete examples: three recent (wonderful) blog posts that did a fantastic job with their narrative architecture.
A constant, variable barrage
In the aftermath of the recent horrific mass shooting in Charleston, South Carolina, few of the pieces I read matched the unflinching intensity and thoughtfulness of “I Have Not Actively Worked. I Have Sat Quietly,” by prolific blogger Teri Carter. In a series of powerful vignettes Teri exposes the pervasive presence of racism in her life, including her close family; these episodes have already happened, but she narrates them in the present tense.
It’s a harrowing piece, but one which leaves you empowered and energized rather than deflated. And I suspect one of the main reasons this is the case is the post’s structure.
Episodic pieces like these can become very monotonous reads (when each section feels the same), or flimsy (when you don’t get to spend enough time in each mini-narrative). Teri’s post avoids these pitfalls — largely thanks to her beautiful prose, but also because she injects much-needed structural variety into her otherwise-similar sections.
An easy way to keep track of your sections’ word count in real time is having an online tool like Word Counter (there are many others) open in a browser tab at all times. You simply copy and paste the desired chunk of text into the tool, and presto: you know how long it is!
After a short quote to set the mood for her essay, she follows with seven sections (separated by “***” — a common divider when you wish to avoid numbers or letters). The word count for each holds the key to the great pace: 190, 167, 126, 200, 107, 114, 137 — or long, medium, short, long, short, short, medium. Here it is, visualized:
The alternating rhythm lets us breathe, giving our brains the time to process what we’re reading.
I don’t know if it’s by design or not — great writers do things like these intuitively — but the longest section, which is right in the middle of the post, is also (to me, at least) the most emotionally devastating. It recounts a visit to an aunt who hides the pictures of her mixed-race grandchildren in a drawer, for fear of her neighbors’ disapproval. Bookending it with shorter sections makes this episode stand out, but also gives me, the reader, the mental power to focus on its gravity.
The tasting menu approach
A few days ago I stumbled on a terrific read in The Daily Post‘s weekly Community Pool — a 2,500-word essay on the fascinating (who knew?) history of gorillas and their connection to 19th-century debates around evolution. I heartily recommend you give “The Victorian Search for Gorillas, Evolution, and Humanness,” over at I Heart Literati, a look.
If you’re dealing with a longer piece of writing, nothing beats trial and error when it comes to the structure of your post. You can save different versions of your draft, then jump back and forth between them using the Post Revisions feature, which saves up to 25 of your most recent saved revisions.
2,500 words is not a short read — in fact, when editors on our team look for pieces to feature in Longreads, we aim for 1,500 words and above — yet this one flies by, despite a topic that some might consider esoteric.
How does this happen? I call it the tasting menu approach: a couple of small, intriguing bites, followed by increasingly heartier, meatier fare.
Let’s look once again at the inner division of the text. It’s split into five sections, with the following word counts: 149, 156, 547, 747, 864.
The pattern is clear: the author first hooks us, pulling the reader in with two short, captivating sections. Then we plunge into the thick of things, taking ever-deeper breaths.
Letting your draft sit for a day or two, and then reading it again (preferably out loud) with fresh eyes will really help you detect problems and strengths in your pacing — you’re less alert to these after spending several hours with your draft.
Of course, there’s more to the division here than mere length. As the piece progresses, we’re also introduced to more characters, we go back and forth in time, and we move in space from London to Africa to the United States. But the structure laid out by the writer supports and invites this expansion. By the time this essay was over — more than ten minutes after I’d started it — I wanted even more.
The vanishing point
Taking an almost opposite approach, Allie Marini Batts‘ short story, “And On the Memory of Your Tastebuds, They Are All Umami,” starts with the longest chunk and ends, almost 1,700 words later, with a short section.
While fiction writing may offer some stylistic and other liberties that nonfiction blogging normally doesn’t, it’s never a bad idea to draw inspiration from your favorite storytellers.
It’s a beautiful piece of fiction, narrating the end of a love affair through the lens of five different food items (the protagonist is an aspiring chef). The numbered and titled sections jump back and forth in time, space, and narrative point of view to delicately reveal the subtle twists in the story.
Word count-wise, the sections vary quite a bit, though the overall thrust is from long to short: 630, 347, 153, 352, 190.
We start in medias res, already aware of the story’s outcome through the opening section’s patient exposition. But we stay engaged because we want to learn why everything happened the way it did, and the structure of the story — generously easing up the pace and amount of information to process as we move forward — prevents us from losing our focus.
What this story — and the two essays I mentioned before — show us is that there is no reliable formula for breaking down your posts into an engaging, digestible piece of writing. But tailoring your structure to the post at hand and keeping your readers in mind at all times is already a couple of crucial steps in the right direction.
Do you set out to create a specific structure in your posts, or does it come about more organically? Do you consciously try to control your posts’ pacing? Do share your writerly wisdom in the comments!