An author and journalist, Carmen specialises in customer-facing content. A committed wordsmith, she enjoys a good debate with the Copylab grammar geeks.More articles from Carmen Reid
(To save time, you could just read the highlighted bits).
When I’m reading through 15-page white papers, mainly I’m thinking: ‘How did you manage to make this so loooooong?’
I blame academia.
When a friend of mine handed in his PhD, it was pretty much handed straight back to him with the comment: ‘This is too short. Go away and make it longer.’ So he did. For another two years.
In academia, long is good. Long is learned. Long means you’ve done tonnes of research, weighed up 997 different opinions, explored all the angles, thought very hard and created a weighty tome of work.
This idea, that expounding at length proves what you are saying is important, can be hard to shift. But out here in the real world, we crave succinct, bite-sized chunks of info because there has never been so much to read.
Every time we glance at our phones, someone somewhere has posted a link to yet another in-depth ‘must read’ article, blog, opinion piece or news item.
And we are too time-pressed to do anything but glance at the headline and skim the first paragraph.
Computer scientists at Colombia University found that 6 of 10 links shared on social media haven’t been opened by the sender. Turns out we’re much more willing to share an article than to actually read it. So, in fact, we’re just sharing headlines.
When we’re reading on our mobiles, we’re even more impatient – we scan and swipe, desperate to get to the point of the piece as it goes on and on and on. Anyone who’s ever read a Guardian think piece on their mobile is usually wondering ‘when will this ever end?’
For anyone wanting to communicate online and particularly via social media, the essential skill is to condense,condense and condense again. Here’s a look at how to squeeze copy down to its barest essentials.
Ask yourself how you would re-tell the information. Most of us are naturally good at condensing information when we talk. If you’ve read something interesting and you tell someone about it, you rarely tell them all 1,500 words you’ve just read. You give them a succinct 300 to 400-word explanation, covering the main points.
This is condensing at its simplest. Stick to the important stuff. If you’re in a hurry, you might re-tell the main points in 150–200 words. Or you might just read out the headline.
When reading through a piece you’re condensing, take a highlighter pen, or on-screen tool, and apply it whenever you come across new information. When you do this, you’ll be amazed to see how often writers repeat themselves in a document. How often they add long, unnecessary explanations after a sentence which has allowed us to grasp the concept fully. (You see what we did there?)
Often, when you’ve crunched a piece down to its essence, you’ll wonder how the writer managed to spin it up into this candyfloss of unnecessary length and fluff in the first place.
It’s old advice, from Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch’s ‘On the Art of Writing’ published in 1916, but it still holds. Whenever you’ve written something you think is particularly dazzling, witty, downright flashy and clever, it’s almost certainly irrelevant to your central message and you should probably just delete it.
For infographics, you rarely need full sentences. Bullet points will do. So just focus on the key words and phrases.
What you need to know:
Many content experts recommend the post-it note challenge. Can you crunch down everything you want to say onto a post-it note? It’s an excellent task, especially as that’s about as much copy as can fit onto a mobile screen anyway. No teeny tiny writing allowed.
Finally, without resorting to the well-worn cliché, an image will allow you to use fewer words and clever graphics can do the explaining for you. Instead of the words ‘which leads us to’, try an arrow. Instead of ‘in combination with’ use a plus sign.
It’s often helpful to ask yourself, how would you write it on a whiteboard if you were explaining it to a group of newbies?