Old-fashioned gym with weights and bars

10 ways to slim down obese copy

Posted by Matthew Stibbe
Speed Reading Mode

Billboard with slim copy

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?

Slim down your copy

  • 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.
  • 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. For example, this post started off with 20 tips and I deleted the ten worst ones. (Just kidding, but you get the point.)
  • 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.
  • 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! They just sit around watching TV and eating your food like unwanted house guests. They don’t even do the washing up.
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • Give instructions. ‘Don’t run with scissors’ is shorter than ‘surveys by leading analysts suggest that velocity and cutting implements don’t mix.’
  • 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.
  • 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. So edit out the 'fake news'.
  • Use a bigger font. Sounds daft, but it’s much harder to write lots of words if your screen fills up quicker.

Hat tip to Fritinancy for the image.

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