Why short writing is the best writing - for you and everyone else
You want people to read your words? Shorten them. (I’ll pause as those who know my writing best snicker at the irony — I’m a notoriously long-winded writer, as evidenced by this sentence.)
Depending on your end goal, short writing is the best writing. Fewer words are significant words. And when brands are competing for your customers’ attention with a torrent of paid advertising, it’s essential your words are effective, clear and brief if they are to cut through the clutter. Emphasis on brief.
Here are four steps to keeping your writing short, courtesy of a shameless hypocrite.
Get to the point. Quickly.
Words are wonderful but, if you’re not careful, too many can get in the way of what you're saying. Reading habits have changed. Dense blocks of text are ineffective. Repetitive paragraphs are turnoffs. Big words are intimidating. Long form is best reserved for books, magazines and front-page stories in the Sunday newspaper. (And on Longform.org, too. It’s one of my faves.)
If you’re trying to educate consumers about your brand — or persuade them to take action — get to the point. Don’t bury the lead. Keep it plain. Use words that motivate, inspire and empower, and avoid the temptation to wow readers with your impressive vocabulary and sentence-writing chops. They don’t care.
As I suggested in “Write It Real Good,” save the elaborate prose for your novel. Keep it short for your website.
You know those people who are experts in whatever and make sure you know it with their verbal diarrhea? You probably don’t like them much, do you? You likely want to avoid them at all costs, don’t you?
That same kind of arrogance can infiltrate your writing. It can insult and confuse the reader, prompting them to disengage and treat you with the same disdain they would a know-it-all. Why? Because readers are smart, and they’re quick to realize when you write something for yourself rather than for them.
Rambling to impress readers with your smarts doesn’t make your writing effective or sophisticated. It certainly doesn’t make you a good storyteller. The average person reads on an eighth-grade reading level. Write for the average person, not for yourself. It’ll serve you better in the long run.
Say what you mean, mean what you say.
Don’t mince words. Be direct — not blunt or crude, but clear and concise.
Use metaphors sparingly. Use analogies that compare apples to apples, not apples to pears. Weave in details that support your overall message. Don’t let your words do all the heavy lifting — use graphics, video, charts, etc. to illustrate your point. Whatever you do, be specific.
Guesswork is best left to detectives. Your readers don’t have time to investigate. They need clarity and information, and they need it quickly.
Protip: When all else fails and you have tons of information to deliver, use bulleted lists. They’re digestible, bite-sized and easy to skim (which is what most people do when they read stuff online).
Cut. Then, cut again.
Always edit what you’ve written, and cut down your words. More times than not, removing words makes your writing better and your messaging sharper.
If it takes 36 words to explain your value proposition, cut them by half to see if 18 will do. I bet it will.
Use fewer words. Eliminate unnecessary phrases. Avoid words that are filler (“that” is a common one, as are most adverbs - “actually,” “really,” “very”). Don’t fluff your piece to achieve a word count (you’re not writing an academic thesis).
Some of my best pieces contain short sentences with punch. They drizzle with enough detail to paint a picture, not a sloppy mural. It’s a skill that takes practice but it's worth honing.
Protip: Read aloud everything you’ve written and listen to yourself. Ask these questions:
Do your sentences flow?
Are there words that make you stumble or stammer?
Do some sentences drag while others sprint? Is there cadence or cacophony?
Will these paragraphs perform better in a list, or accompanying a graphic?
Do you need those words at all? Are they germane to your overall message?
Do you switch tenses (past to present then back to past)?
Do you make your point at all?
Notice the bulleted list.