Pacing and spacing
Pacing in writing is the speed with which your reader moves through and absorbs your text. In fiction, this can vary enormously, from slower, descriptive and introspective passages to snappy bursts of dialogue and action that keep the plot barrelling along. In non-fiction, particularly in business writing, the pace should be generally fast. Unless you're preparing a deep analysis, or providing a lot of evidence for a conclusion, good business writing gets to the point quickly.
So what helps determine the pace of a piece of writing? While language choice is king, there's a lot of structural tools that can make your text clearer and stronger. Space changes pace.
Paragraph sizing can make a huge difference to the pace of your writing. A lengthy paragraph seems dense or challenging to a reader before they get as far as reading it.
You might end up with a too-big paragraph if you're trying to say too much in one paragraph, or if you're saying it with too many words. Pick your paragraph apart: what are the key ideas? Could you maybe squeeze a paragraph break in between them?
Small paragraphs can be good.
They can be punchy.
But they can also make your writing look like it secretly wants to be a detective novel.
In the context of business writing, be very aware of the impact of single-word paragraphs. You may use them sparingly, if you think they're going to have the effect you want, but honestly, use them very very sparingly. Maybe three or four times in your entire life.
So what's the perfect size paragraph? Well, sorry, but there isn't one: there's only what's right for your message. As a general rule, shorter is better, but not at the cost of accuracy. Think about the key message you're trying to get across in a paragraph and ask yourself if the reader is getting the entire message or, conversely, if they're getting too many messages.
Start with a visual overview: is there a balanced spread of paragraphs across your page, or is there a big ol' block of text that sits in the middle of your reader's flow like a broken-down truck on a highway? Zoom in on that big block of text and write down its primary message. Summarise it in a sentence. You might discover there are two or more primary messages in that paragraph, which is a great reason to break it down.
On the other hand, you might find tiny one-line paragraphs that need to be strung together to produce a meaningful point. If they're scattered about, they read like a list of facts instead of an explanation or argument.
Vertical lists are lists using line breaks. (A horizontal list is a list contained within the text, without putting the list items on separate lines.) They break down long, detailed sentences into individual points. Try not to use them unless you have three or more items on the list (unless they're very detailed items).
Bulleted lists are lists where each line begins with a bullet:
- such as
- this sort of thing
- as I'm sure you've seen before.
Bulleted lists are particularly good when you've got a series of things in a list with long, detailed names, like:
- a list of the requirements of dairy cows for the purposes of showjumping;
- an itemisation of books required by all undergraduate students to have read before the Autumn term starts;
- a description of each stationery item that each student must have before they return to classes.
If you linked those last three bullet points together into a sentence rather than a list, you would end up with a runaway sentence. Bullets allow readers to digest each point, taking the whole message step by step.
Use bulleted lists when the order of the items in the list isn't critical to the message and when you won't be referring directly back to the list items later.
Numbered lists are vertical lists where each item begins with a number, as I'm sure you've deduced. They look like this:
- Excellent for ordered steps.
- Can also use letters instead of numbers.
- Although that is less common.
Numbered lists are preferable when the order of items in the list is important to the overall message — such as the steps in an argument, or an overview of the text — and also when you're referring back to the list later. (It's easier to refer back to "Point 4" rather than "the fourth bullet point on the list".)
Subheadings give your readers signposts. Markers to show them the progression of your points and the structure of your argument. And they're particularly useful if your reader is distracted or called away mid-read: a subheading lets them quickly find their place.
Keep your subheadings short and accurate. A lengthy text can benefit from numbered subheadings (and nested subheadings), but they're rarely necessary for shorter text. If you include a colon in the subheading, capitalise the word immediately after the colon.
First level good
The first level subheadings are usually the strongest: use them to identify the major points in your text and the conclusion. You can include an "Introduction" subheading at the start if you're so inclined. A good rule of thumb: if you read only the subheadings, you should get a feel for the structure of the document. Write them down in the order they appear in the text and see if they flow logically.
Subsequent levels raise questions
After the first-level subheadings, you need to start treading carefully. While second- and third-level headings are widely used, especially for very long texts, after that you should start asking yourself some stern questions about whether or not you're just cluttering up the text. Sometimes the answer will be no: you've got a lot of ground to cover and subheadings provide a sturdy support over which to drape your text. But sometimes the answer will be yes: you don't need a subheading for every paragraph. Readers don't need that level of hand-holding.
Checking your pacing
Look at the layout of your text, ideally in a draft that visually resembles the finished product as much as possible. Are there big blocks of text? Oceans of white space? How do you respond? Does it feel like a text that you'll have to wade through with a packed lunch and a shaving kit? Or does it feel like a ride on a lightning-lit word-gazelle?
Read your text aloud: for the purpose of getting a feel for pacing, nothing works better. You'll find all your run-on sentences and lengthy paragraphs as you gasp your way through. Think about what kind of pauses the subheadings and paragraph breaks are introducing, and whether that matches your message.
And remember: there's no golden paradigm to meet, only what works for your message.