If I cut the length of her web articles in half, a client recently asked, could I write “two stories for the price of one?” I explained that it would actually take longer to tell the same story in 350 versus 700 words. That might sound counterintuitive, but not to writers who’ve struggled to convey information in a limited space—to an audience with a short attention span. In the Digital Age, that means all writers.
Writers are fond of saying, “If I had more time, I would have written less.” The source is thought to be 17th-century French mathematician/philosopher Blaise Pascal, who lamented in a letter, “I have made this longer than usual because I have not had time to make it shorter.” Centuries later, wordsmiths still feel the pain of Pascal’s runaway pen.
Today’s writers are challenged to write tight, conversational copy for people scanning webpages on their cellphones—something Pascal could never have imagined. Writing short copy that engages readers on the web or in print is hard and takes time. Here are three reasons why.
Tight writing takes planning
Clients have a lot to say about their businesses, products and services, how and why they do what they do, and what makes them different. Whether in a webpage, blog article or case study, clients want to convey a wealth of information in a limited space. This means we, as writers, need to help them flesh out the most vital points in their marketing-communications materials—in advance. That requires making some hard, up-front decisions about what can and cannot fit, and what needs to be covered elsewhere.
Conversational doesn’t mean long-winded
In his new book The Sense of Style: The Thinking Person’s Guide to Writing in the 21st Century, Steven Pinker likens good writing to a conversation that directs the reader’s attention. More and more business writing has become conversational, less formal. But if we truly write as we speak, we tend to ramble on. Writing in a conversational style means obsessively checking word counts and lots of self-editing. “Write as you speak” really should say, “Think before you write as you speak. Then edit yourself.”
Short copy requires precise editing and thoughtful review
Editors use a scalpel, not a machete, when refining shorter pieces of prose to preserve meaning and flow. This can mean going back and forth with the writer before a piece is ready for client review. Things can get complicated during that review, particularly with multiple reviewers chiming in. When reviewers elaborate on ideas or introduce new ones, we may need to rewrite so the piece is still clear, logical and readable, within word limits. Multiple revisions take more time.
Let’s face it … today’s info-overloaded audiences don’t want to read a wall of tiny, verbose text. The brain can only absorb so many ideas at once. So when clients ask if we can create some short punchy prose for their web or print projects, we tell them YES!
But it’ll take some time.