❡ Length: An Observation

Blog posts, like essays (published online or in magazines) tend (I think!) to differ from books in just how long they let their paragraphs run.

Assumed audience: People interested in the form and structure of writing, especially internet writing.

Epistemic status: Hypothesizing. Quite possibly wildly wrong if you actually did a statistical analysis.

I noticed a while back: Paragraph length is often very different in books than in most blog posts, essays, etc. — at least for the books I read. The books have longer paragraphs; blog posts and essays shorter. That this should be so for blog posts is, perhaps, no surprise. As my friend Brad put it:

Blogging is its own form at this point. It isn’t an essay. Nor is it a scholarly article.…

Blogging is the shaggy dog of internet writing. It’s playful, experimental, occasional, topical, provisional, personal, tentative. It is inexpert, even when written by experts. It is off the cuff, even when polished and thought through.

And it is conversational, at its origins and in its form.

This is all exactly right. The shaggy dog” quality of blogging is likely enough to explain the difference on its own. But the analogy to the essays I read in most magazines I have read suggests (to my mind, anyway) there is something else going on as well: something to do, perhaps, with the medium itself, its affordances and frictions.

It is by now a commonplace to observe that the margins of a book matter. Cramped, they make reading a chore. Expansive, they invite: reflection, yes, and commentary perhaps, but also delight. Beautiful proportions of text and page can, along with well-chosen type faces, make the act of reading far more pleasurable. A medium shapes our reception of its contents.1

Consider common novel formats. A big trade paperback sits in the hand differently than a mass market paperback. A hardcover, though similar in size to the trade paperback, weighs more, bends less, might stay open better — though perhaps at the cost of a broken spine. An ereader is almost weightless. (Ebooks are actually weightless!) I emphasize here the physical weight because it matters. We tend — or at least, I do anyway, but I suspect you do too — to give more weight to things with more heft.2 One can hardly imagine reading a serious monograph in a mass market paperback. It would not be fitting. Likewise, one can hardly imagine a collector’s edition, with heavy paper gilt at the edges and bound in a thick wooden cover, of a piece of pulp fiction (unless it should ascend to the status of a classic).

It is not only weight that matters, of course. So does density. So do page count, and page thickness, and height, and width, and thickness, and the texture of the pages — and of course the margins and the typesetting. Every physical attribute matters. And books and magazines and blogs have very different physical attributes, as a rule. I think we expect different things of them as a simple matter of course: responding to their physical attributes. A book is a heftier thing, so we allow for its arguments to run longer: if a paragraph ought to do a single thing,3 then the single thing it ought to do might be a good deal larger a thing in a larger medium.

One could overstate this case, of course. Not many authors (or editors!), it is true, allow their paragraphs to scrawl across whole pages and more. The modern life/self-help/business advice manual4 are certainly much more akin to your average blog post in paragraph structure.5 Some essays — in print or online — do let their arguments sprawl. Many fewer allow their paragraphs to run across even the thin columns of a magazine, though, and fewer still actually embrace the infinite canvas of a website. Does a magazine’s bigger page and thinner codex suggest a different shape to thoughts? Does the infinity of a web page actually nudge us away from longer thoughts, since we never know how far the page itself goes (other than, perhaps, via a scroll bar, often hidden in a modern OS)? Do the edges, like the margins, matter? Maybe.

Of course, it could also be that (a) the observation is a bit of selection bias going, or (b) that the reasons are mere cultural norms, with nothing to do with the media’s formal structures. Maybe!


  1. A statement which includes, but is neither limited to nor merely coextensive with, McLuhan’s dictum. ↩︎

  2. This even goes for credit cards, apparently. People like them in heavy metals. Not I! I want them light as possible in my wallet. But people do. ↩︎

  3. I lately forked a piece of software, which uses color to visualize the length of sentences. I used it in composing this very blog post.6 Thinking on paragraph length has me wondering if the same kind of tool would not be useful for paragraphs, as well.

    Sentences and paragraphs work very differently in writing. They have in common, though, that strong changes in length can be attention catching:

    Like so!

    Paragraphs are not quite so amenable to re-chunking as sentences are. Good paragraphs, anyway: they carry a specific idea out to its conclusion. I am cheating, here, with that interjection, offered to make a point; this paragraph and the two preceding it are really all of a piece. ↩︎

  4. think Atomic Habits, to name one I liked ↩︎

  5. No few of these books were blog posts at one point; but even those which are written wholly new often come in the same idiom. ↩︎

  6. I think, when I get around to rebuilding this site — and yes, the ideas are bubbling — that I will have a development server which integrates that via local-only JavaScript, seen only ever by me, available as a toggle with a live preview on any post or essay I am writing, so that rather than copying and pasting between some Markdown previewer and that forked tool I can simply see it live. ↩︎