‘I’m sorry for writing such a long letter: I didn’t have time to write a short one,’ Blaise Pascal once said. Probably the most common copywriting issue that people want to address on our web-writing courses is how to cut copy: ‘How we can say what we need to say in half as many words?’
They’re right. 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.
‘We've known for 14 years that it's best to be concise when writing for the Web,’ said Nielsen in 2011. ‘Mobile simply reinforces this point and stretches it to the limit. Short is too long for mobile. Ultra-short rules the day.’
Less is indeed more. It makes your content look like less effort to engage with, which in turn raises the possibility of someone actually reading it.
1. Make every word earn its keep
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. So rather than thinking about cutting copy or imposing arbitrary maximum word counts, think more about tightening copy and writing economically. There’s no room for ambiguity, or throat-clearing, or restating a point twice because you like both versions and can’t decide on a favourite.
2. Write quickly, edit slowly
‘Writing is rewriting,’ as many have said. Too often we spend ages on writing, and leave no time for editing. But the editing is where the work really happens, so just bash the first draft out, get something down, leave lots of time for rewriting.
Editing is actually a very strategic activity – 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.
3. Be as hard on your own copy as you’d be on someone else’s
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. The user 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.
4. Avoid please, welcome, thank you
Such niceties are usually not a great courtesy online, as you’re just adding more words for the user to process. The politest thing you can do for your users online is to get them where they want to go, as quickly as possible.
5. Omit needless words (so long as they really are needless)
Strunk and White’s famous advice needs to be applied with care. By all means, weed out all those redundancies that add no information (‘to all intents and purposes’, ‘first and foremost’, 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 we can use lots of visual-verbal tricks instead: bullets, bold, numbered steps, menus, hypertext etc…
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 sometimes – especially in marketing – these elements are not needless.
6. Work your verbs
In a sentence, every non-verb aspires to be a verb; the verb is the alpha male of syntax. A strong verb that effectively expresses the action of its clause is the foundation of a tightly edited sentence. So:
Look hard at your adverbs. Why say: ‘We need to work harder at…’ when you can say ‘We need to improve…’? Or ‘What this means exactly is…’ or ‘We want to explore the brief really thoroughly’?
Look hard at your uses of the verb ‘be’ and ‘mean’. Do they tell us anything? For example, rather than, ‘Our sea view rooms mean you’ll get the sun every morning’, go for something like: ‘Enjoy sunshine every morning…’
7. Avoid topic seepage
Writing for online means breaking your thoughts down into modules. 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 to drift into another.
Don’t. Just add a link instead. This is exactly what hypertext can do for us, neatly bracketing off chunks of secondary or background information so we don’t have to reiterate them and the user can choose their own journey.
8. Murder your darlings
Attributed to Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch, the tip is to go through your draft and delete all the bits you feel especially proud of. A great piece of advice, and very instructive – it’s funny how often the phrases we most like are the bits our readers stumble over.
9. Don’t be afraid of a short sentence
In Orwell’s essay, Politics and the English Language, he makes fun of the British fear of a short, sharp sentence. It feels a bit abrupt, a bit too crudely definite to our delicate ears, and so we add on something waffly like a ‘to a certain extent’ or ‘at least in some ways’ to avoid ending with a nasty bump.
Padding and waffle dilute meaning in 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. Too many short sentences jar…