Brief encounter?July 01, 2006
Brevity is the soul of wit, said William Shakespeare. (And of lingerie, according to Dorothy Parker.) It’s also not bad for good copywriting, says independent subscriptions copywriter, Andy Maslen.
To judge by much of the copy that I see in an average week, there are plenty of people who view long words and long sentences as the epitome of the copywriter’s craft. I don’t. Let’s examine the case for the prosecution.
One, long sentences are harder to read. It’s true that a well-written sentence, of almost any length, can be easy, even pleasurable, to read. But this assumes that your reader has the time to sit back and be lulled by your mellifluous prose style.
Let’s be honest. It’s not going to happen. People are busy. They’ll read if you make it easy for them. But they’ll get bored and switch off if they look at a sentence that starts on one line and ends two or three lines further down the page.
Two, you get lost (and so does your point). It’s very hard to write a simple sentence of more than 16 words using the active voice without interrupting the flow of the main clause with subordinate clauses or any punctuation. (It’s not impossible.)
But even if you can pull off this little parlour trick, you’re still forcing your reader to wade across a very wide river. More often, what happens is that you have two or three points you want to get across and they all get run together.
Three, they make added demands on your reader. If you’re writing for an international audience, many will only have English as their second language. That means long convoluted sentences will trip them up and force them to reread.
Is your market entirely made up of native English speakers? Then you may still be making assumptions about their willingness or ability to decode overlong sentences. So, let’s look at the solution.
Ten practical tips for achieving brevity
First, let’s be clear: long sentences are not universally a bad thing. Just when they could be cut down. Or replaced by two or more shorter ones.
1. Read your work aloud
This is such a powerful technique, I’m amazed so few of the people I train use it. I still do it myself to check not just style but tone of voice. If you’re pausing for breath, your sentences are too long. Restructure them, teasing out the separate ideas and placing them in separate sentences.
2. Weed out subordinate clauses from your copy
Even if you’re not familiar with the terminology, you’ll recognise these slippery little fellows every time. Why? One, the give-away comma-pairs that enclose them. Two, the draggy quality they impart to the writing they interrupt. Here’s an example…
MazCo, which was established in 1986, and is based in the heart of London’s financial district, helps its clients, who include household names in the UK and Europe, write shorter sentences.
Have a go at rewriting this. You should aim for a minimum of three sentences (four would be better).
3. Consider sentence fragments
Sentence fragments may be frowned upon in literary circles. Though not always. But they are a valuable tool in your copywriter’s bag of tricks. So don’t be afraid to ignore what Mr Doggett told you in fourth year English.
Sentences (or at least those phrases topped with a capital letter and tailed with a full stop) don’t need verbs. (I can hear the shrieks from the traditionalists as I write this, but hey, they don’t have to earn a living parting people from their money using nothing but writing.)
4. Check for the ideal length
Do you want a “rule”? How about this: aim for an average of 16 words per sentence. That’s the level at which most people can understand the meaning of a sentence in one go.
Shorter sentences are even better, though you need to vary the length to create a sense of pace in your writing. Too many short sentences tire your reader. They’re breathless. They’re choppy. You’re message gets lost. Give your reader a chance to relax and be seduced by what you have to say and they’ll thank you for it.
5. Write a plan for every document
If you start writing without a plan, you have to think of two things simultaneously: what to say and how to say it. As you strive for the right words, it’s all too easy just to keep on writing as your brain struggles to cope with the lack of structure.
Write a plan first and you can see what needs to be said, and in what order. The result? A concise document that leaves nothing out except the irrelevant, the unimportant and the unnecessary.
And remember, state your main commercial goal at the head of your plan. If your aim is to sell 1,500 new 3-year subscriptions within 30 days of the mailing dropping, say that.
6. Revise your text
View your first draft as just that: a draft. It’s never going to be good enough to send. Leave it for a while then go back to it. Ideally overnight, but if you have to get it out the same day, at least an hour. Although it has been shown that 37% of statistics are unreliable, you should aim to cut your first draft by at least 10% to produce your second.
What should you cut? Anything that doesn’t move your reader towards your goal, whether that’s subscribing, renewing, taking a free trial or signing up for a free e-zine.
7. “Omit needless words.” – William Strunk Jr.
Look for redundant adjectives and adverbs. For example, instead of saying “he walked slowly” you can say “He sauntered”. Instead of saying “It fell noisily” you can say “It clattered”. Prune all flowery language (‘genetic inheritance’ just means ‘genes’, for example). Tautology (eg ‘pre-planned’). Clichés (which you should avoid like the plague). And, more generally, words that add nothing to your message. One of my favourites is ‘A loud bang.’ (As opposed a tiny little quiet bang, I assume.) A much better writer than I am recently shared one of his favourites with me: ‘Crisis situation.’ Presumably ‘crisis’, unadorned, was not felt to be sufficiently weighty.
8. Don’t tell people what they already know
If you are writing a proposal, don’t include a lengthy description of your client’s industry/market. Or of their business. Especially not near the beginning. If you feel you need to demonstrate that you were awake at the pitch meeting, include a couple of very short bullet-points in an appendix.
In sales letters, don’t start by lecturing your reader about what they need to do to be good at their job. They know this. And even if they don’t, they won’t thank YOU for pointing it out to them.
I remember very clearly the advice my first boss gave me when I was writing copy for market research reports. “If you’re ever stuck for how to start, Andy, just say, ‘Recent years have witnessed…’ then tack on some facts from the report.”
It kept me out of trouble (or so I thought) for years till I realised the people I was writing to KNEW what recent years had witnessed in their industry because they’d witnessed them too. If you need to show your reader you’ve done your research, just add the phrase “As you know,” to the front. Now you are flattering them rather than lecturing them. Big difference.
9. Avoid repeating yourself
Yes, presenting the same points in different ways can help sway your reader. But straight repetition—either because you have contracted a mild case of Cutandpastitis or because you haven’t revised your text (see 6 above)—will only put them off.
10. Use short words
Let’s suppose you’re launching a new management journal (and Lord knows, we could do with something better than the slew of badly written rags that clutter up our in trays every month). You might have an editorial mission statement that said, “It is our intention to identify and disseminate current best practice in strategic management methodologies.” If you did, you’d score a lamentable 2.7/100 on the Flesch Reading Ease scale, which measures the readability (or ‘understandability’) of narrative text. On the other hand, you could say, “We aim to spot the best new ways to run your business and tell you about them.” This would add 70 percentage points to your score on the same scale.
It’s easier to discuss brevity than to achieve it. However, work on it and your reader will thank you for every step you take. And grateful readers are responsive readers. But let’s not mistake brevity of style for brevity of content. Long copy still works.