Why cutting copy can be more important than writing it

by Tom Albrighton 18 July 2009 Copywriting

It is not daily increase but daily decrease; hack away the unessential… the height of cultivation always runs to simplicity. (Attributed to Bruce Lee)

Writing is hard. But cutting is harder. When you’ve sweated for hours – or days – to get your thoughts down on paper, the pain of deleting your precious words again can be intense. But it’s also essential.

What is the ideal length for a piece of copy? My suggestion would be ‘shorter than you think’, particularly if you know the subject well or it’s close to your heart. Whatever you’re working on – report, news article, marketing text, ad headline – there’s nearly always scope to cut without harming the message. And it’s nearly always the right move too: people rarely complain that things are too short. The key is to consider what the audience really needs to hear, as opposed to what you really want to say.

Bruce Lee had a lot to teach the copywriter

Bruce Lee had a lot to teach the copywriter

Interface Designer Mike Kuniavsky proposes six rules for web design, including ‘people hate to read’ and ‘people hate to scroll’. Although the web is essentially a text medium, it’s delivered through a format that’s hopeless for reading – a screen. We all know from our own experience how we really use the web – clicking and scrolling around at high speed, flitting between sites almost at random, only reading when we absolutely have to. So make sure you write online copy that suits these habits: make it as short as you possibly can.

Because it’s emotionally difficult to destroy your own text, I recommend saving a working version before you cut, or pasting bits you’ve cut into another document. That way you can go back to earlier versions or cut fragments later. You never will, but the backup gives you the courage to make bold cuts.

If in doubt, cut it out. Does the text still work? If the answer’s ‘yes’, you’ve got your new version.

If you’re working on something very short, like a company tagline, it’s a question of chipping away at the words until nothing further can be removed. For example, here are the last few iterations of the phrase I eventually chose to promote my own one-man company, ABC:

  1. Is your message getting through to the people who matter most to your business?
  2. Are you getting through to the people who matter most to your business?
  3. Are you reaching the people who matter most to your business?
  4. Are you reaching the people who matter most?
  5. Are you reaching those who matter most?

The last few steps took several days of intermittent effort. It’s easy to turn out loads of words – it may seem counterintuitive, but shorter takes longer.

Getting the perfect phrasing is as much to do with subconscious thought as conscious effort. Often, a night’s sleep or a day away from the keyboard will allow the right solution to emerge, appearing in your mind or your notepad like it’s been there all along. And, in a way, it has – you just needed to ‘hack away the inessential’.

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