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Divide and Conquer (Your Prose)

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:

Screen Shot 2015-07-08 at 9.46.07 AM

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.

Screen Shot 2015-07-08 at 9.49.07 AM

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.

Screen Shot 2015-07-08 at 9.54.24 AM

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!

 

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  1. I find that it comes to me organically, I go with the feeling and my mind space at the time. I do however tweak accordingly when editing my piece. But your post has made me want to be more intentional in the future.

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    1. That’s a solid approach — at least for some forms of writing, coming in with a plan that’s too specific can get in the way of writing. It does make more sense to think things through as pieces grow longer and longer, though.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. My latest pieces have been quite informative so resultantly they are quite lengthy too, but it was necessary so I think it’s alright. I think I’ve done well varying the type of writing I use…difficult to explain😁 as in layout, bullet points, and I used an endnote in my post last night. Thank you for giving me something to reflect on! I plan to post a few shorter posts soon aswell for variation. If you could check it out I’d appreciate your experienced feedback or comments 🙂 感谢!

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  3. Great post! I have been working on making my paragraphs smaller and easier to digest so this came at a perfect time. Thanks for all the examples and the link to the “Experiment with Formats” post too. It’s easier for me to understand when I can see how other people are doing it. Plus I found some new blogs to follow 🙂

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  4. “great writers do things like these intuitively”

    Wow, I guess I’m even better than I thought! 🙂

    You did an excellent job of quantifying forms and style that I have always viewed as instinctive. The graphs engaged an ethereal concept and made it nearly self-evident. Well done.

    I tend toward the “tasting menu” in short pieces, and the “variable barrage” in longer pieces. Although, in either case, I always seem to end with a tiny, little …

    The End.

    Liked by 2 people

  5. This is a great post. Flow is so important in a piece and getting that right is about more than just grammar or ease of reading. Your graphs show that each writer has their own rhythm for creating flow in their work. Since I’ve started blogging my personal style has become more evident, but I don’t want to become stuck in a formulaic mode of writing. Trying out other peoples writing rhythms might just be the thing that I need to do.

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  6. Great to see those excellent and successful longer blog posts broken into sections on grafts with varying color.

    After reading the New York Times interview with “The King of Click Bait,” Emerson Spartz, I realized the truth of his Internet research. Lists are addictive to the human mind. His new company called Dose, works to have readers click from their FB page to Dose, often by offer the first top lines of a list.

    As a visual learning by doing person, I have gravitated to posts organized by lists. My first draft is rarely a list. Often I have a list in mind but let myself really write about the most important topic of a post. Then I divide it and write up the main list.

    Later the title and lists help to organize and design the layout. I think it’s help my readers and new visitors get the essentials quick. Do visit and tell me what you think? Thanks.

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  7. Great knowledge-drop for this long-winded preacher… I’m so trained to 23-minute sermons. Much appreciated.

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  8. My paragraphs mostly remain a similar length, depending on the depth and complexity of the idea that I am trying to convey in that particular paragraph. So personally, I let the structure of my pieces ebb and flow as I go along, and I focus more on my sentence length than I do on my paragraphing. I feel that shorter sentences add more of a punchy, climatic statement than a more complex sentence would, and this is what I rely on for my pacing. Overall though, I prefer an “organic” approach.

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  9. Most of what I write on my blog is quick and dirty. I will revise a little bit if it’s my own work but the original inspirtation is still very there, regardless of how it reads. I do try to pay a lot more attention when I include links to other blogs or websites because I’m trying to pass on information, and promote/support someone.

    I was very interested to see the rhythm of different types of stories laid out the way you did. I know I will keep this in the back of mind from now on. Salute!

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  10. Thank you so much for good advices 🙂 as far as I am just a beginer both in blogosphere and in writing I find it extremly helpfull and interesting .

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  11. Thanks, Ben. This is a thought-provoking topic early on a Friday morning.

    I personally prefer to “free-write” any article I write. Not for 10 or 15 minutes, but until I intuitively “know” it is complete.

    I will then go back and edit, re-organize, split and re-combine paragraphs so that they compliment my goals for the specific piece.

    Liked by 1 person

  12. Great post thank you, I will give this some thought going forward. I have always been a bit paranoid about using paragraphs far too gratuitously, but I now realise I might be onto something. Perhaps writing freely and then editing to match a style (that almost naturally suits the existing piece) would be the easiest way to do this.

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  13. I just write. After I write, I add this or that – make a space here and make a grammar correction there. For me, it’s kind of both organic and inorganic(?).

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  14. Thanks for such an informative post! I am a new blogger and will keep these things in mind while I write my next post 🙂

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  15. Interesting. The bulk of my posts come in at 1000-1200 words. As my posts are usually telling about an adventure (a hike, a trip, etc) there are pictures that accompany the text. Therefore, I break my text up with photos. Tell the story…show the pictures that go with it.

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  16. Love this! I generally write as if I am having an actual conversation with someone for the most part. This tends to create a more natural flow for me. I feel that we too often become “stuck” in our own way of doing things, when a little change could be a great tool Great post!

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  17. Great post, Susanna! My blog posts are often over 3,000 words, and I need to take some of this advice to break them down. But I do use subheadings to break things up, and I try to be aware of pacing and creating blocks of prose that make the reader want to read on.

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  18. Interesting, who knew.

    I break up my blog post with (hopefully) relevant personal photos and inserting subheadings to direct the eye and provide visual break in the text, a pause for reader.

    Subheadings also allow users to skim over areas where they want to spend more time. I can’t expect every read to be motivated to read every word. But I hope they can at least capture the gist of what I’ve written.

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  19. Very interesting post. However, I am not sure I consciously break up my writing into sections in the same way. I am not really aware of the section breaks I use, but this makes sense to me. Even though, I have no idea how to implement it (not just posts, in any form of writing).

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