Paragraphs give long reports the grey look that forces readers to squint. Too much squinting is hard on readers who have stacks of stuff to read, meetings to attend and big decisions to sort out. Here’s one last squint to make life easier for everyone: writers, readers, and especially lookers. (If you missed the other two, look them up in The Durksenary.)
Lookers are readers who don’t read. Lookers are also notoriously fond of PLT sandwiches.
The PLT Sandwich
The Paragraph List Table sandwich is a great way to help readers move quickly through layers of information. The sandwich is a reminder to keep things light and portable. Some proposals and reports look more like one of those 7-course meals that require detailed explanations for every course. Fine for a doctoral thesis, perhaps. Or a white paper that everyone wants but no one reads.
Paragraphs are useful for holding ideas together. But using only paragraphs in a report or in an ironically named “briefing” note is a bit like building a bread sandwich.
Writers should build the kind of sandwich that suits the topic, of course. In some sections of a report, open-faced sandwiches might work: a short paragraph to introduce a list or a table, for example. In my next post, I’ll suggest recipes for PLT sandwiches to try. Today’s 30-second edit focuses on cutting the carb load.
- Brave editing tip: If I believed in pointing out the obvious, I would have added the PLT acronym in parentheses, in the first sentence above. But I know you are smarter than that, dear reader. You were already looking for the explanation and you found it without my help, in the first sentence after the heading.
Good carbs, bad carbs
Lookers are always looking for a payoff for their efforts. In most cases they start with some version of these key questions:
- Why should I care?
- What should I do?
The answers to their questions are a reader’s good carbs.
Writers often take too long getting to those answers. Instead, we fill first paragraphs with empty calories, using them to introduce the obvious or remind readers of things they already know. That’s because we often confuse the first draft (or the fifth) with the final draft.
The final draft is the one that gets to the point. The point is whatever the writer learns by struggling to write all those other drafts and then remembering to write with the reader in mind.
30-Second Edit for Long Paragraphs
Take a 30-second squint at the drafts you write this week. Look for the places where paragraphs turn into a grey blur. Or, if you prefer to work with numbers, look for paragraphs that use more than 5 sentences or 150 words.
Setting the timer will let you know when you’re lost in the writing weeds.
The flag: Grey blur paragraphs
Try a test squint with this paragraph.
If you squeeze your eyes until everything on the page is a grey blur, you’ll see what lookers see when they’re trying to avoid reading the long, tedious paragraph you wrote based on your field notes and the scientific methodology that provides the basis for your analysis. This long paragraph is similar to the one you wrote for your brilliant master’s thesis, which is why your boss asked you to carry out the field work and provide a scientific analysis based on your detailed observations at the site. It is also why you suspect that your thesis supervisor didn’t actually read every paragraph. And why your mother has promised to take your thesis along to read on her next vacation. The purpose of the entire section you are writing is to demonstrate the scientific rigour of your research and outline the processes you followed to gather data that will meet the regulatory requirements set out in the regulator’s most recent bulletin (for more information please refer to Appendix A). But you know a great deal about the topic, so your thoughts are stacking up into long paragraphs with barely a breath between them.
That’s the kind of paragraph all readers will skim and then skip. I hope I didn’t say anything important in the fourth sentence. (Oh wait, that’s the one about your mother.)
The fix: Cutting PLT sandwich carbs
The Big Cut: Save the entire paragraph as “Notes” to file, after summarizing it in a few sentences: one for the conclusion and one or two for persuasive details. Then learn how not to spend three hours of billable time summarizing field notes that no one will ever read.
The First Cut: Delete the sentences that are about you and what you did. The first draft helped you think through the topic. Perhaps you have confused your client with your thesis supervisor. Clients want to know where you went, not how you got there. These sentences are easier to see if you have an hour or a week to step away from the draft. But if you’ve got 30 seconds, that works too.
The Break: Find a logical place to break the long paragraph into two or three shorter ones. While you’re at it, make sure your ideas are in logical order, not just the order in which each thought occurred to you.
The Final Cut: Make a 10% cut by looking for empty words, repetition, word strings, long sentences. Do this even if you are certain there is nothing more to cut. There’s always more.
Fixing the Fix
I hope you noticed the greyish tint in one of my paragraphs above. Here’s the same information in a table. When I built this table, I also changed the order and cut the word count from 205 to 125. On a tighter deadline, I might have settled for moving paragraphs around and cutting a few words.
Some 30-second edits take longer than 30 seconds. You knew that, didn’t you? If you find an easy place to add a paragraph break that makes sense, the edit might take no more than 10 or 20 seconds. Obviously I saw bigger flags when I reviewed the four fixes in paragraph form.