‘I’m sorry for writing such a long letter: I didn’t have time to write a short one,’ Blaise Pascal once said. Well, quite.
Probably the most common copywriting issue that people want to address on our courses is how to cut copy.
‘We have so much we want to say but our content’s way too long and clunky already.’
‘How we can say what we need to say in half as many words?’
Reducing wordcount matters because the online space is a tough reading environment.
Here’s a quote from Steve Krug’s Don’t Make Me Think:
When we’re creating sites, we act as though people are going to pore over each page, reading our finely crafted text… What they actually do most of the time (if we’re lucky) is glance at each new page, scan some of the text, and click on the first link that catches their interest…
We’re thinking “great literature” (or at least “product brochure”), while the user’s reality is much closer to “billboard going by at 60 miles an hour”.
As far back as 1997, Jakob Nielsen found that by cutting copy in half, you could score an improvement in measured usability of 58%.
Today’s multi-platform reality has only underlined the brevity imperative.
As Nielsen said in 2011:
We’ve known for 14 years that it’s best to be concise when writing for the web. Mobile simply reinforces this point and stretches it to the limit. Short is too long for mobile. Ultra-short rules the day.
Less is more. It makes your content look like less effort to engage with, which in turn raises the possibility of someone actually reading it.
It also, as a compliance officer reminded me recently, makes for a smoother review/approval process. ‘The less you write, the less I have to caveat,’ he said.
So let’s cut to the chase…
Think less about cutting, more about tightening
Editing copy is about combining precision and concision. Online, things can be exactly as long as they need to be, not a word more or less: you don’t have to fill a para or slash two columns of text, just so that it’ll sit nicely in a layout.
And sometimes length can be a good thing in digital copywriting
So rather than thinking about cutting copy or imposing arbitrary maximum wordcounts, think more about tightening copy and writing economically.
In our online worlds, every word has to earn its keep. There’s little room for ambiguity, or throat-clearing, or restating a point twice because you like both versions and you can’t decide on a favourite.
Write quickly, edit slowly
‘Writing is rewriting,’ as many have said. The agony of overcoming writer’s block and getting that first draft down often leads to a lack of time or energy for tightening.
But the editing is where the work really happens, so just bash the first draft out, get something down, leave lots of time for rework.
Editing is actually a very strategic activity, as you need to be thinking about the article’s purpose and audience, your business goals, the user’s content needs, the call to action.
You need to have an answer to the question: ‘What do I want people to think, feel or do as a result of reading this copy?’ Anything that doesn’t align with that answer can probably go.
Master the art of self-editing
It’s very easy to slash through someone else’s copy. Oddly, when it comes to our own copy, we can become rather defensive.
To write well online, however, we have to leave the ego at the door and focus on the user’s priorities.
Your reader has two questions: ‘So what?’ and ‘What’s in it for me?’ Take a long, hard look at your copy and remove anything that doesn’t address those demands.
When you write something, show it to someone else and listen hard to how they react. That’s your first user right there, and what they think of your copy is far more important than what you think.
And if they’re not sure you need the first three paras, don’t rush to defend yourself. You probably don’t.
Don’t say please, welcome, thank you
Such niceties are not usually a great courtesy online, as you’re just adding more words for the user to process.
The most polite thing you can do for your users is to get them where they want to go, as easily as possible.
Omit needless words
Strunk and White’s famous advice needs to be applied with care.
By all means, weed out all those redundancies that take up room without adding any real informational value (‘to all intents and purposes’, ‘first and foremost’, ‘at the end of the day’ etc).
And a lot of the connective elements of our sentences can go too.
In print, reading is typically a more linear, less visually signposted experience, so we often need to point the reader back to where we’ve come from (‘as described in the last section’), or forward to where we’re going (‘once you’ve done that, the next step is to…’), or just remind them where they’re at (‘the third and final point to make here is that…’).
Online, however, we can use lots of visual-verbal tricks instead: bullets, highlighting in bold, numbered steps, menus, hypertext, tables…
So lots of needless words to omit there. But don’t use this rule to cut down everything to the bare minimum.
Meaning isn’t just information, it’s also rhetoric, emphasis, music, register, tone and more. And sometimes – especially in marketing – these elements are far from needless.
Take the famous fresh fish story (see a version here) where a fishmonger’s sign like ‘We sell fresh fish daily here’ is simplified to ‘Fish’ or even just a fishy smell.
But what if the store sits next to a dozen others offering something very similar? Then the fishmonger probably needs more words, to differentiate his offering.
Or take this example of product copy from Firebox, one of Graham Charlton’s Five examples of great product page copy:
Utterly astounding, this beautifully crafted gizmo looks like the kind of thing you might find in Diagon Alley. The difference is you use it to control your telly, Sky, digibox, stereo or any other infra-red device via various abracadabra-ish gestures. Simply swish, whirl and flick to change channels, adjust volume and much more. Incredible! What Katie and Peter Did Next? *ZAP* Who cares? Your wish really is its command.
If we apply the ‘omit needless words’ brief strictly, we might end up with something like:
Use this gizmo to adjust your telly, Sky, digibox, stereo or other infra-red device with wand-like gestures.
But is this an improvement? As Firebox is a highly successful brand with a universally applauded copywriting style, probably not.
(By the way, if you know anyone who claims that The Elements of Style is all you need to read to write well, you might want to offer them a second opinion.)
Look hard at adverbs and the verb ‘to be’
In a sentence, every non-verb aspires to be a verb. The verb is where it’s at, it’s the crux, it’s the alpha male of syntax.
A strong verb that effectively expresses the action of its clause is the foundation of a tightly edited sentence. From this, various tips follow:
- Look hard at your adverbs. Why say: ‘We need to work harder at…’ when you can say ‘We need to improve…’ Why say ‘What this means
exactlyis…’ or ‘We want to explore the brief really thoroughly’?
- Look out for dull nouns that are harbouring more interesting verbs:
‘Sorry for the extended call waiting times’→ ’Sorry you’re having to wait so long’
‘make a purchase’→ ’buy’
- Look hard at your uses of the verb ‘be’ and ‘mean’. Often these will be weak non-action verbs that could be tightened. So rather than, ‘Our sea view rooms mean you’ll get the sun every morning’, go for something like: ‘Enjoy sunshine every morning…’ And rather than Be one of the first to enjoy the IEM Expo in Katowice next month get to the point quicker with ‘Enjoy exclusive access to…’ or ‘Beat the crowds…’
- Rather than telling us what your product or service allows or lets someone do, go for a simple ‘you can’ or just a plain imperative. So rather than ‘Java technology allows you to work and play in a secure computing environment’ (which sounds as though we need Java’s permission to start gaming), why not: ‘Work and play securely…’ or ‘You can work and play…’
Often you get several of these together. Before: ‘It was a real blow for the team psychologically when Jane resigned.’
After: ‘Jane’s resignation really hit us.’ (I added an adverb back in here, as it felt too bald without, but we’ve still cut by over 50%.)
Avoid topic seepage
Writing for online means breaking your thoughts down into modules. Each page, each content item, is a self-contained unit of meaning as much as it is a stand-alone visual element.
But when you’re writing lots of web pages, it’s easy to forget this, and to allow one page’s content to drift into another.
Say you’re writing a site about a new kind of loyalty card. You’ve written pages called ‘How the card works’ and ‘Getting started’.
Now you turn to ‘Why choose our card?’ – and because you’re proud of the card and brimming with knowledge, it’s easy for this benefits overview to slip into a recap of how to get started, how the card works etc…
Don’t. Just add a link instead. This is exactly what hypertext can do for us, neatly bracketing off chunks of related but not-currently-priority information so we don’t have to reiterate them, and allowing the user to make their own way through our content.
Murder your darlings
Attributed to Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch and also known, rather cruelly, as ‘kill your babies’, the tip is to go through your draft and delete all the bits you feel damn attractive about.
A great piece of advice, and very character-building – it’s funny how often the phrases we’re most attached to are the bits our readers stumble over.
That’s because we’ve lost sight of who we’re writing/editing for and why, and have started just pleasing ourselves. Writing should be fun, but not at the reader’s expense.
Don’t be afraid of a short sentence
In his essay Politics and the English Language, George Orwell makes fun of our need to stop sentences coming down with a bump by bolting on some ready-made bit of waffle at the end.
If a sentence feels a bit too crudely definite to our delicate ears, we can simply add on ‘to a certain extent’ or ‘at least in some ways’ to cushion the blow.
Padding and waffle debase political discourse, Orwell argued. They’re not great in online copy either, where we need everyday English and simple cat-sat-on-the-mat syntax to reduce the user’s processing load.
So have no fear of a short sentence. But don’t make them all short. Don’t forget tempo and rhythm. Vary sentence length within sensible limits. Read your stuff aloud for rhythm. Too many short sentences together jar.