How to write copy that’s an inch wide, a mile deep
Too often, we cut our copy the hard way: a word at a time. If we need to cut 600 words, we peer through our prose until we find a candidate for cutting. There’s one, we say. There’s one. There’s one.
The rest of our lives later, we’ve cut our copy by 600 words. But now we have a piece that’s, while shorter, flat and lifeless. Elmore Leonard used to famously say:
“I like to leave out the parts people skip.”
But with compression — polishing your piece a word at a time — we tend to take out the parts people read. That’s because the first thing to go when you’re cutting a word at a time is the anecdotes. That’ll save 50 words. Then the metaphors. That’s 40.
We want to write pieces that are an inch wide and a mile deep. We want to cover very little ground, but cover it fully. That’s why story focus is so important. You don’t have room in your blog post to cover a card catalog of information.
So here are three ways to make polishing, or compression, work for you.
1. Avoid the trash compactor story.
At its worst, compression — polishing your piece a word at a time — can lead to a trash compactor story.
Don’t squeeze the life out of your piece. Sometimes, compression works about as well as Microsoft Word’s AutoSummarize function. Here’s what happens to, say, the Gettysburg Address when you click AutoSummarize:
Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation, or any nation so conceived and so dedicated, can long endure.
Yup, it’s short. But you’ve got to admit, it loses something in translation.
2. Cut first, polish second.
The solution to the trash compactor story? Cut first, polish second.
You don’t want to polish something in half. What if jewelers took polishing cloths to raw stones? That’s not an efficient way to, say, get an emerald cut, and the results would probably be fairly disappointing. But pull out that polishing cloth after you cut the emerald into shape, and now you can make your jewel shiny and bright.
Same thing’s true with polishing your message. Cut first — tightening your story angle and breaking your message up — to get the copy into shape. Then, when you’re about 10% above your word count limit, polish the rest.
The result: tight, bright copy.
3. Edit with a highlighter.
When I conduct writing workshops at Tellabs, I always learn as much as I teach.
One day, watching the Tellabs team edit a press release during a practice session, I was surprised to see George Stenitzer, vice president of corporate communications, wielding a highlighter instead of a pencil. Instead of cutting words, phrases and ideas he wanted to remove from the piece, George was highlighting information he wanted to keep.
It’s a great technique, because it focuses you on finding what you need instead of what you want to scrap. Think of it as Marie Kondo-ing your message: Instead of leaving all of your clothes in your closet and auditioning which should go out, take everything out of your closet and audition each garment to get back into your closet. Forget Strunk and White: Instead of omitting needless words, identify needed words.
Having stolen George’s technique, I’ve come to believe that highlighting needed words is more effective than omitting needless words. It gets you there faster.
I think it will work for you, too.
How can you reach all of your readers?
Read it and weep. More than half of all Americans have basic or below-basic reading skills, according to the DOE’s latest adult literacy test.
To reach all of your readers — regardless of their reading level — please join me at Rev Up Readability, — our tight-writing workshop that begins on Feb. 22.
You’ll learn to make every piece you write easier to read and understand. You’ll walk away with secrets you can use to reach more readers, measurably improve readability and sell concise writing to management. And you’ll learn to write messages that get more people to read your piece, read more of it, read it faster, understand it better and remember it longer.
Save $200 when you book before Dec. 31.