page pacing

You ever read a new e-book for what feels like a good stretch and then get antsy and tap to see where you are? And that little progress indicator is all the way left, zero daylight between where you are and the beginning of the book? And you're, like, ugh, this book is a beast.

Or open a blog post, read a few paragraphs, then get impatient and scroll down to see how long it'll be—and bail over to YouTube? (Or, worse, save it in your favorite read-it-never app?)

The best attribute of a physical book is its width. A thick book may be a slog, but you know that going in. No surprises. Also, you get bragging rights. People see you schlepping that brick around on the subway or leafing through it in a restaurant, and they're like, you've got a head on your shoulders there. You don't look like a pretentious poser at all with that dog-eared copy of Ulysses. (They think that, don't they?)

Readers pace themselves. Thanks to digital screens destroying our brains, none of us run marathons anymore, either. We're sprinters now. When the flow of words bogs down, we set the text aside and move on to another distraction. Crucially, that sense of reading velocity—the spectrum of "slog" to "breeze"—can be manipulated by the skillful writer. (Well, the skillful writer who cares to keep the reader reading pleasurably since not all do. Plenty of talented sadists out there want their books to be a painful struggle.)

By calibrating the lengths of sentences, paragraphs, and chapters, inserting space breaks or subheads to give the reader much-needed breathers, peppering the text with photos, diagrams, or illustrations, or ending chapters with cliffhangers—even in nonfiction—we can amp a text's "stickiness." Keep noses glued to the words for a little bit longer each session, without fundamentally altering the content itself.

Remember, people can always stop reading your article, newsletter, or book altogether. Longer stretches equates to fewer stretches until the final page. Do you want them to finish or not?

Getting pacing right is a crucial part of the revision process. Reading through your stuff repeatedly, you start paying attention to your own sense of "this bit's been going for a while now, hasn't it?" Then, you slice and dice until the feeling goes away. The goal here is readers wanting to turn the page upside-down and shake out a few extra words, like bonus French fries at the bottom of the bag.

Writing or editing, stick to the same format across all projects. Even though the reader of a book I write sees a very different page—in terms of page size, margins, typeface, justification, etc.—I've observed the translation between 8 1/2" x 11" Word doc and 6" x 9" hardcover enough times in my career to distinguish between dense, sloggish manuscript and breezy, magnetic manuscript. All it takes is a glance at the screen.

This is why I avoid writing in trendy apps that erase page breaks—"pageless" mode in Google Docs, for example—even when I'm writing for an online medium with no page breaks at all.

Wherever you write and wherever your writing gets read, pace with pages. Stick to the same formatting choices while you work, and pay attention to the translation between input and output, whether you're drafting in WordPress for articles that appear on your blog or drafting hardcover book manuscripts in Google Docs. Teach your eyes to recognize writing that's tough to read. Then, do your readers a favor and fix it. Unless you're a sadist.

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