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A comment on a recent question of mine claims

Right, so that's [large unformatted text blocks scaring off some readers in certain contexts is] a myth. This is how I know: Harry Potter. Big long books. Lots of text. Lots of readers. People come to SE for text. They are not scared of it. But they are information foragers. If your text does not have the scent of the information they are looking for they will quickly move on. Make sure your text is leading the reader the direction they want to go and is making steady progress. (But do keep your paragraphs short. Easier to read on screen.)

This was surprising to read. Multiple people throughout my life who've been quite interested in the content of short, nonfiction pieces I've written have requested that I avoid 'text walls' in the future. While the density on the page was not problematic for them once they actually read the piece, they had significantly delayed reading it because of the lack of paragraphing and other formatting.

Is the so-called 'text wall' really a thing? Is it true that in some contexts, large blocks of unformatted text can scare off readers before they start reading? Or is there actually no such phenomenon?

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    Harry Potter is not a wall of text. It uses line breaks, paragraphs, headings and chapters. thats the opposite of a "wall of text", which simply means "a lot of text without formatting, line breaks, paragraphs or any typesetting whatsoever". – Polygnome Feb 24 '17 at 10:56
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    I have to agree with @Polygnome. "Long book" doesn't equal "wall of text." Gabriel Garcia Marquez's Autumn of the Patriarch is a "wall of text." Or at least by the time I got to page 40 I counted SIX. discrete. sentences. And at that point I threw it across the room and told the teacher to forget it, I'd take the F for that section. – Lauren-Reinstate-Monica-Ipsum Feb 24 '17 at 10:59
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    I might suggest the commenter doesn't know what a wall of text is. He says there's no such thing, but then tells you to make short paragraphs. – user15479 Feb 24 '17 at 13:52
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    Also, I've always heard the expression as the set phrase "wall of text", never "text wall". – chrylis -on strike- Feb 24 '17 at 19:59
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    The people who told you to avoid walls of text may have been providing feedback on your writing style. Your sentence that begins "This is surprising to me..." is 70 words long, and very complex syntactically. – Kevin Troy Feb 25 '17 at 17:57

10 Answers 10

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Harry Potter is not a wall of text. It uses line breaks, paragraphs, headings and chapters. thats the opposite of a "wall of text", which simply means "a lot of text without formatting, line breaks, paragraphs or any typesetting whatsoever".

As long as you properly format your answers, long answers are not bad in any form.

Start with a short summary of your answer - bring the main point across in the first paragraph. Then use subsequent paragraphs to elaborate on that. Finish with a conclusion that brings you back to the start.
Use formatting where appropriate. Do not overuse bolding. Split your text in paragraphs. Use headlines or taglines where appropriate.

If you do all of the above, your answer will not be a wall of text. It will be easy to follow. People will be able to read your introduction and can then decide wether they will embark on reading further (through the parts of your answer where you elaborate) or if your answer doesn't apply / doesn't interest them.

For comparsion, this is my own answer as Wall of text:

Harry Potter is not a wall of text. It uses line breaks, paragraphs, headings and chapters. thats the opposite of a "wall of text", which simply means "a lot of text without formatting, line breaks, paragraphs or any typesetting whatsoever". As long as you properly format your answers, long answers are not bad in any form. Start with a short summary of your answer - bring the main point across in the first paragraph. Then use subsequent paragraphs to elaborate on that. Finish with a conclusion that brings you back to the start. Use formatting where appropriate. Do not overuse bolding. Split your text in paragraphs. Use headlines or taglines where appropriate.If you do all of the above, your answer will not be a wall of text. It will be easy to follow. People will be able to read your introduction and can then decide wether they will embark on reading further (through the parts of your answer where you elaborate) or if your answer doesn't apply / doesn't interest them.

As you can see, its much harder to read when not properly formatted. Thats what people critizise when they complain about "wall of texts" (at least in the context of internet platforms).

  • Well, if "avoid walls of text" means "write in paragraphs like they taught you in grade school" then it's pretty weak sauce advice. But I think you will find that the origin of the phrase is more of a marketing thing based on eye-tracking studies that looked at where the eye falls on immediately landing on a web page. It was an attempt to use headings, callout, graphics, etc. to put more hooks in the water as the fish swam by. But it seems to be becoming clear that the phrenetic web does not really have a good information scent. Long form content ranks higher and does better with readers. – user16226 Feb 24 '17 at 13:53
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    @MarkBaker The motivation for the OP to ask the question stemmed from the usage for "wall of text" on an SE site where his answers were long. So its only proper to adress this specific context - writing posts/content for web platforms. Yes, it goes much deeper then that when you start going into advertising/marketing/book-writing, but if you follow the other questions by the OP then you clearly see thats not the context he ancountered "wall of text" in. – Polygnome Feb 24 '17 at 14:14
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    @Mark No, it's very good advice. Just because you already follow it doesn't make it "weak sauce advice." – David Conrad Feb 25 '17 at 2:32
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    Losing the breaks in the example is not as bad as a “real” WoT, as you still have organization. In particular, the last paragraph “follows” the others, and contains a tipic sentence. A real WoT will be lacking transitions and organization. A visual WoT will make people presume that to be the case, due to experience. – JDługosz Feb 25 '17 at 14:04
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    It was really hard to pick between yours and Mike's answers for acceptance-- both are excellent in different ways and they were neck and neck on upvotes for quite a while. I'm accepting this one because, while Mark's has been a good springboard for thinking about appropriate syntactic structure in particular as regards avoiding causing the textwall feeling, I think this one was more helpful with respect to the specific issue at hand-- i.e. helping me understand that textwalls exist and how they work. Thanks for writing it! – Please stop being evil Feb 26 '17 at 8:40
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Almost anything will scare off some readers in some contexts. That does not make them wrong things. It just makes the things that appeal to one person more than another. No work of art or communication should strive to appeal to anyone other than its natural audience.

If someone is looking for videos, text will scare them off.

If people are looking for short easy answers, long answers will scare them off (even if a long answer is needed).

The point is, there is a place for large blocks of text. If you are using a large block of text when a large block of text is appropriate, it is fine. It won't scare off someone who is looking for a substantial written answer.

It is generally a good idea to break text into fairly short paragraphs, particularly on line. This seems to make text easier to read. The definition of a paragraph is fuzzy at best: "a distinct section of a piece of writing, usually dealing with a single theme and indicated by a new line, indentation, or numbering." How big is a theme? Themes are fractal, bigger theme are made up of smaller themes. Paragraphs are therefore quite and arbitrary unit, and they have been getting steadily shorter over the last couple of centuries.

What you do need to be aware of, though, is information scent. Readers on the web have a wealth of sources available to them and this encourages them to make quick decisions about a page and move on quickly if it does not meet their needs. This means that you need to establish what is called "information scent". Stack Exchange is full of information scent clues.

Questions create information scent. Upvotes create information scent. If a user is looking for a piece of code they can copy, code blocks create information scent.

A block of text gets its information scent from its context and from its opening sentence. If the information scent continues to grow as the reader moves on, they will keep reading. If the information scent flags or is never established, they will stop. A block of text may not have as strong an initial information scent as a video, a diagram, or a code block. This does not make text blocks scary, it just means it needs to do a good job of being focused and on target. If a block of text is the right vehicle for saying what needs to be said, then use a block of text.

If you are an advertiser, you might decide to use a picture or a video to try to grab the attention of an unmotivated reader. Unmotivated readers are not likely to be drawn to large blocks of text. This is probably where the idea of the "text wall" came from. But it turns out that long form content actually works better for content marketing purposes than pictures of kittens. Why? Because it attracts motivated readers.

A motivated reader is not scared by a block of text if there is a reasonable indication that that block of text contains the information they are looking for. There are different rules for essayist and novelists than there are for carnival barkers. We should not be dragged down to the lowest common denominator of communication.

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    You know, this would be a good answer to the first question that I asked, but I'm not sure it's an answer to this one ^^; Nonetheless, +1 – Please stop being evil Feb 24 '17 at 6:11
  • @MarkBaker, Thanks for reminding me of the idea of "information scent". I'm not sure that I agree with you wager on text walls vs kittens. I've had a lot of success (higher conversion percentages) from bullet lists with 5-8 line text blocks under each item, usually formatted in a smaller font. Its a fast and concise... here is an idea here are the details delivery which apparently gets read. – Henry Taylor Feb 24 '17 at 6:22
  • @HenryTaylor I'm pretty sure that the conversion rate of kittens, bullet points, and essays vary based on what you are selling. And, of course, the also vary based on the composition of your traffic. Content in the right place will have a higher conversion rate than content in the wrong place. Also, of course, conversion may depend on maintaining a connection over several stages of courtship, which may begin with kittens and proceed through bullet points to essays. – user16226 Feb 24 '17 at 13:45
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    I know this answer is correct, because I stopped reading after the third paragraph. – Hylianpuffball Feb 24 '17 at 23:30
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    I'd like to point out that just adding breaks does not fix the problems. Paragraphs imply organization. Where layout lost the breaks it can be obvious where they should have been. A true WoT will also be a disorganized morass of random sentences in the worst case. – JDługosz Feb 25 '17 at 14:00
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The key word is unformatted. Harry Potter is a set of novels which have paragraphs, reported speech broken out into lines and so on - the normal readability aids. I also note that the Harry Potter books get thicker as the series goes on; it might not have taken off if the first book was Order of the Phoenix.

The "wall of text" is much less of an issue in book format than on screens, so long as the text has pagination and is a reasonable size. If you fill an A4 page with unformatted 6 point text nobody is going to read that either.

This is slightly separate from what's called an "infodump", which is a chunk of background material that neither involves characters nor advances the plot.

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I believe text-walls are highly subjective.

One general definition calls it a large amount of text without breaks. But what is large? I'm quite certain that what a 19th century reader considered an average paragraph is often considered large today. On the other hand, one must consider the medium. What one considers a large paragraph online is very often acceptable on paper.

I once read a blog entry (which I've failed to track down) from a university teacher (American, if memory serves me right). He claimed that the more time he spent online, the less patience he had for long chunks of text. There is also a wide controversy about attention span and the nefarious (or not) effects of the digital world. There was even a claim that people's attention span had fallen below the attention span of a fish.

Personally I have noticed that, since I've started reading online news that favour extremely short paragraphs (think 1-2 sentences per paragraph), I have indeed become impatient with traditional paragraphs on news articles. Once I went so far as to think "ugh, wall of text". But in fact, it wasn't; it was a well thought out text with far more information than what I'd been reading.

On the other hand, I accept rather long paragraphs in a book without any problems for as long as each one is a well-thought out unit.

This seems to imply that the length of what one usually reads dictates what one considers appealing or boring (in terms of length).

Bottom line: text-walls do exist. Text-walls will make a reader tune out and lose interest (though I wouldn't say it'll scare them). What leads a person to consider a given text a text-wall is subjective.

To avoid the problem, consider:

  1. the medium (online begs for shorter paragraphs),

  2. the target-reader (book readers may have a longer definition of paragraph than people who read mostly online or who dislike reading, whether those paragraphs are online or not)

  3. the aim (to transmit specific information, a preferance for bullet points and naked, lonely facts is preferable; to create a more, let's call it rounded or contextualised information, go with more a traditional textual approach).

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    Heh. I personally can't stand most “news” reports, textual or audial–visual, for a very similar reason: they seem so hollow and insubstantial, and don't really provide me with much interesting information except a profile of someone's bias. – can-ned_food Feb 24 '17 at 14:11
  • @can-ned_food: Yes! But I had this idea I was using it just as a quick peek and then I'd go to serious places to read stuff in-depth if I wanted to. Only it turned out I was sabotaging myself all the same. – SC for reinstatement of Monica Feb 24 '17 at 14:41
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There are two kinds of density of text. It is common to find one author (e.g. Karl Marx) writing text that is dense in both senses, but let's tease the two types apart:

  1. One way of making text dense is to write long, convoluted sentences that the reader has to go back over one or more times to figure out.

  2. Another way is to have long paragraphs, perhaps spanning more than one page!

The extreme opposite to density type #2 is the bulleted list -- think of how text is laid out in how-to books such as ____ for Idiots.

I have proposed an edit to your question that shows how I edit papers in the social sciences. I try to honor the idea the author is trying to get across, but make it so the reader can "get" it on the first pass. I think that comparing your original version and the edited version may make it easier for you to understand what I'm saying about convoluted sentences.

Original:

This is surprising to me as I have had requests from multiple people throughout my life who seem quite interested in the content of something (short and non-fictional) I've written that I avoid text walls in the future as, while the various things were not problematic to read once they began, they significantly delayed reading it because of the (lack of) formatting and the correlated perceived density of the text.

Edited:

This was surprising to read. Multiple people throughout my life who've been quite interested in the content of short, nonfiction pieces I've written have requested that I avoid 'walls of text' in the future. While the density on the page was not problematic for them once they actually read the piece, they had significantly delayed reading it because of the lack of paragraphing and other formatting.

My editor (my spouse) has helped me shorten and simplify my sentences over the years, without sacrificing the complexity of my ideas by telling me regularly, "Think Hemingway."

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Who wants to waste time on bad content?

Regular consumers learn heuristics based on prior consumption. For example, you probably enjoy the sight of your favorite food because you've had it before and know that it's good.

Readers are content consumers. After having consumed tons of content, they've acquired heuristics for estimating the quality of content before investing the effort to consume it.

And text walls stink

Walls of text have a horrible stench. They invoke memories of pointless rants, poorly formed reasoning, and unorganized trains of thought. I'd guess that most of us read text walls at first when we were young, but after each bad experience, we became less and less inclined 'til we stop reading them altogether.

So, yes, text walls will drive away users. They're not really scared so much as they have better things to do. The internet has no shortage of stuff to read; why waste time on something that, based on experience, seems likely to be of lower quality?

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"Text wall" is a term that describes user-generated content in internet forums or on social media sites that take longer to read than the average eight second attention span of internet users.

The common reply to a "text wall" is "TL;DR". I never read more than the question title on this site and have never read any of Mark Baker's answers.

There is no such thing as a "text wall" in a book.

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I take this concept to the extreme .. and I think it may be due to some sort of condition ... my motivations have always been to keep things conversational and easy to read.

If I'm personally accomplishing that goal, I'm sure opinion differs greatly on that one.

I don't know if this question tricked my mind into creating "imaginary walls", and thinking a lot of the answers and even the question looking "blockish."

I think walls of text ARE DEFINITELY "a thing", and it should be mentioned that character / font / font size / line width / line spacing can also create these walls ... combined of course with the number of lines in paragraphs.

Most of my context is non-fiction, and it's a lot harder to keep people engaged when you cannot make things up haha. So these "walls" become even more apparent.

And some of my non-fiction is training and some of it marketing and sales. The medium and context also play a part how text is formatted and structured.

THE FLOW, so to speak :)

One marketing "cheat" we love to use is to survey your audience, using a free survey service like survey monkey. Not sure if that is a possibility, but hearing from your readers will get it straight for the horses' mouth.

If you go that route, bribe them with a free ebook or something to force their hands into responding, muhahaha.

Uh oh, are these paragraphs too long?!

  • Hi and welcome to the Writers stack exchange! Thank you for your answer. In particular we look for answers that back up their claims, including with personal experience. You did a good job of tying your personal experience in to support your points here, and I hope you will continue to do so in the future. When you have time, consider checking out our help center and maybe taking the tour. Hopefully you continue to find our site engaging! – Please stop being evil Feb 26 '17 at 22:00
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The quote claims a lot of text is no bad thing if formatted and structured properly. "Wall of Text" refers to lack of formatting and structure, albeit a less common alternative definition (which is not relevant in this context) seems to exist. The quote and the generic advice to avoid Walls of Text are in agreement. This answer demonstrates that presentation isn't as relevant if the text is sufficiently brief.

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My own reaction is that yes, a "wall of text" puts me off, because I surmise that the writer is doing stream-of-consciousness, which is not my favorite. But that's just me.

I suggest that you go to a place such as Project Gutenberg, which has free online versions of many famous novels that are now in the public domain. Look at things you like, and observe the lengths of paragraphs. Understand that in the Nineteenth Century, whence much of the public domain literature originates, writers were more verbose than they are today. Taking that into account, ask yourself: Is this book hard to read? Is my attention wandering? Is it because the paragraphs are too long, or for some other reason?

Then you will know what to do.

For example, the famous opening of "A Tale of Two Cities" (It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, etc.) is longer than it needs to be, to make the point. But it is memorable and beautiful, and would suffer from being shortened. Yet not long thereafter, Dickens resorts to long paragraphs, and I feel myself dozing off... .

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