10 ways to slim down obese copy

iStock_000009023577XSmall-w120-h180 Shorter, punchier copy is more readable and more memorable than obese copy. You can test this in your own life. Why do we like top ten lists, for example? The claim is also supported by experimental data; such as Jakob Nielsen’s research. So how do you put your copy on a diet?

  1. Zap filler text. Pious throat clearing can go – just get straight to the point and delete the run up. For example, most press releases contain this kind of waffle: “In order to demonstrate our commitment to cutting-edge technology, innovation and customer service…” It’s what the delete key was invented for.
  2. Cut paragraphs before you cut sentences. It’s better to change the structure of your piece by deleting low priority content than it is to try to make all your points but with fewer sentences. See my article: Optimise the algorithm not the code for more on this point. For example, this post started off with 20 tips and I deleted the ten worst ones. (Just kidding, but you get the point.)
  3. Don’t lock down the word count before you start. A fixed word count is a guarantee of maximum verbosity (as the old Infocom games used to say). If you commission 500 words from a writer, that’s what you’ll get. Better to say ‘up to 500 words’ or ‘between 350-500’ and make sure that the writer focuses on the message and the quality of the writing. Similarly, ‘lorem ipsum’ copy on websites gives designers way too much influence over the copy length. Better to get a writer involved from day one, perhaps by using wireframes.
  4. Delete hype words, clichés, adjectives and adverbs. Accurately chosen perfect words make this sentence the most beautiful one ever written. Or not. All readers have an inner cynic that discounts any hype word they read so using hyped-up words has the opposite result to the one you wanted. D’oh! See Words to avoid for more. They just sit around watching TV and eating your food like unwanted house guests. They don’t even do the washing up.
  5. Shorter sentences. I often find that breaking down a long sentence into a series of short ones, sometimes even using the machine gun style to spit out a sequence of very short sentences, can make a paragraph much shorter. In other words, short sentences rule. Use readability tools to provide objective feedback on your sentences.
  6. Use ‘you’. It’s fine to address your reader directly. It’s also okay to say ‘I’ or ‘we’ to describe the person or company who’s speaking. This gets you out of a world of pain when struggling to find the subject of a sentence and avoid the passive voice. It also leads to shorter, punchier copy.
  7. Give instructions. ‘Don’t run with scissors’ is shorter than ‘surveys by leading analysts suggest that velocity and cutting implements don’t mix.’
  8. Shorten or delete quotations. I’d love to research this (does anyone know a psychologist who could help – seriously?) but I reckon that most people skip quotations unless they are very short. The scaffolding around them takes up a lot of words and, in business writing, they are usually full of inhuman Frankenquotes. For more on effective use of quotes, see Surprise and Delight and How to use quotations in your writing.
  9. Write with information. If a sentence doesn’t include a fact or make a strong, clear point, it’s a candidate for deletion. My history tutor at Oxford used to plead with me sometimes: “Matthew, do try to include at least one date in your essays.” It’s the same thing here.
  10. Use a bigger font. Sounds daft, but it’s much harder to write lots of words if your screen fills up quicker.

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26 Responses to 10 ways to slim down obese copy

  1. Einat Adar April 15, 2010 at 8:41 am #

    Tip no. 10 is very good. I’m getting curious about the bad 10 tips that were deleted…

    Obviously I agree with everything you write, but brevity can also become a vice. Today we hear all about how web copy should be short and sweet, but very little about including all the necessary information in it. Without enough information about the product, service, installation, etc. people are left bewildered and go to Facebook to forget the unpleasant experience.

    • Matthew Stibbe April 15, 2010 at 8:59 am #

      I agree. To paraphrase Einstein, things should be as short as possible, but not shorter.

  2. Neil Baker April 15, 2010 at 1:52 pm #

    A tip from me: don’t confuse simple English with plain English. Simple is good; plain bad.

  3. BubbleCow April 20, 2010 at 6:30 am #

    Great article – I am a big fine of ‘cutting’. I often advise writers to try and slim their work down as far a possible. At first it seems counter productive but it can be a writer’s most powerful tool.
    .-= BubbleCow´s last blog ..How To Write A Bestseller =-.

  4. Bill Bennett April 28, 2010 at 4:48 am #

    Great article. As a freelance journalist I’d say the worst thing for bulking up my copy is being paid by the word. Knowing a long winded sentence is worth $15 extra is hardly motivation to putting my writing on a diet.

    This is why I try and get editors and others who commission me to agree to pay by the job or by the hour.
    .-= Bill Bennett´s last blog ..How Quicken lost a customer =-.

    • Matthew Stibbe April 28, 2010 at 8:14 am #

      I agree. Getting paid by the word can lead a writer astray. However, I find that clients really appreciate it when I advise them (against my own immediate commercial interest) to commission shorter case studies, press releases etc. There are few cases where a piece of marketing copy can’t be improved by making it shorter.

      • Einat Adar April 28, 2010 at 11:23 am #

        The point is that making copy shorter is usually more difficult and takes more time than writing long-winded sentences, so it should actually cost more.

        Customers do appreciate it when you advise them for their own benefits even when it’s against your interests, but if you do this every time who will pay for tea?

        • Matthew Stibbe April 28, 2010 at 1:45 pm #

          As Mark Twain said once “I’m sorry I wrote you such a long letter, I didn’t have time to write a short one.” :)

      • Bill Bennett April 28, 2010 at 6:51 pm #

        This works fine when writing for commercial clients – it’s not so good when a magazine editor says I need 1,200 words tomorrow at 60 cents a word.
        .-= Bill Bennett´s last blog ..A better to do list =-.

        • Matthew Stibbe April 28, 2010 at 7:08 pm #

          Ain’t that the truth. Sometimes you just have to write the words. Matthew

  5. Kelly Watson April 30, 2010 at 12:31 pm #

    Regarding “Delete hype words, clichés, adjectives and adverbs,” I learned early on to also delete any instances of the word “very.” Ninety-nine percent of the time, it doesn’t add anything to the text and just takes up space.

    Stephen King has a nice rant on adverbs in his book “On Writing,” but I’ve noticed he doesn’t always follow his own rule.
    .-= Kelly Watson´s last blog ..7 Things Gardening Can Teach You About Marketing Your Business =-.

    • Matthew Stibbe May 1, 2010 at 6:05 am #

      I’m a big fan of King’s On Writing. It works well as a literary biography and an inspiration for would-be storytellers. Even if you are in the non-fiction business, as I am, you can’t get away from the need to tell stories.

  6. Dina Meek April 30, 2010 at 3:19 pm #

    You can also cut most of your “that”s out of text. Try it. http://twitter.com/owords

  7. Gina May 1, 2010 at 5:35 am #

    Sometimes I simply like big fat sloppy over-the-top meaty language. Language that is full and robust. Language that gives me more than one path to the image. Other times, it just irritates me as I search for the actual meaning, distilled from the soup of verbiage.
    But I must say I feel sorry for the word “that” which used to help a sentence flow so well, and is now considered unnecessary. Poor that. My co-writer doesn’t like you, but I still have a secret crush on you. While you won’t always be on my pages, I will still hear you. Silent, but implied.
    .-= Gina´s last blog ..Books =-.

    • Matthew Stibbe May 1, 2010 at 6:03 am #

      I agree about the word ‘that’. It’s not so bad and sometimes quite helpful! :)

  8. Michael Kenward May 2, 2010 at 2:01 pm #

    The target for this sane piece seems to be the printed page, or at least commissioned work. There, at least, a sub-editor might apply their own version of these ‘rules’.

    The people who really need to heed this advice are really bloggers, where sub-editors rarely get a look in.

    One self-proclaimed ‘leading blogger’ has said that good writing is essential, and yet he writes rambling pieces that would benefit greatly from a sub-editor. Failing that, these tips, carefully applied, would go some way to achieving the writer’s alleged goals.

  9. Stephen February 7, 2011 at 8:05 pm #

    I do brevity. But my copy still gets long. I’ve been writing quite a bit lately for verbal presentations. I typically must aim for two, three, or eight minutes. While i usually don’t write an outline, i often think of a bunch of ideas to put together, organize a story arc, and then write. And when i’m done, i end up deleting the best parts to make it fit the limits. The humor. It’s a crime. I’d be much better off dropping some of the more substantial content. I’m a slave to substance.

    I’m happier on my own blog. There are no limits. The humor stays. The whole structure stays. Gratuitous pictures too. The reader gets the whole banana. And why are there no limits? It’s because i don’t care. I have never checked to see how many times a post has been read. There’s no paycheck riding on it. No one can fire me. I’m doing it because it’s fun to do. If there’s nothing to say, i don’t write anything. If it stops being fun, i’ll quit.

    I’ve done some writing for a living, too. One technical tome turned out to be 1,500 pages. Very terse. Proably read like a dictionary. Not much humor. Fifteen hundred pages is what it took.

  10. Tom Slaiter January 4, 2013 at 3:22 pm #

    I agree with you Matthew, awesome post and the all the tips are great, they seem to work really well!

    Thanks for the post :-)

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