Size matters (but not like you think it does)

What’s better—long or short?

It’s a topic copywriters love debating, especially over drinks. (We don’t get together very often, so when we do we make the most of it.)

Some will say it needs to be short to meet the needs of today’s “I don’t have time / I have the attention span of a goldfish” generation. And others will say unless it has enough information it’s just a waste of the reader’s (and the writer’s) time.

So who’s right?

Well, they both are. Your copy needs enough information to satisfy your reader. But if they have battle their way through to get it, they’ll give up and start watching people hurt themselves on YouTube.

But here’s the thing: When we talk about copy being long or short, we tend to focus on the word count.

And that’s not always the best way to measure it.

 

It’s about time

As writers, words are not just the tools of our trade. They’re also our unit of measurement, and even our currency. They define the work to be done (“Give me 500 words on air pollution”), how much we get paid (“We pay five cents a word”), and our productivity (“I wrote another two thousand words today, and only half of them were swear words”).

Even when I’m editing I like to keep track of how many words I’ve knocked out. It’s my way of measuring how I’m doing, and how long my sinister laugh should go for.

But most readers don’t care how many words you use. Okay, they might if you’ve written the sequel to War and Peace. What they’re more concerned about it is how long it will take to read, and if it’s worth their time to do so.

We measure by the word. They measure by the minute.

And the two don’t always correlate.

 

Another way to measure

Check out these two sentences:

  • The boy threw the ball.
  • The descendant projected the object.

As you can see, they’re both five words long. But the second sentence is much longer, and takes a lot longer to get through.

And before you say, “No-one would ever write it like that”, let me tell you a lot of people still do. They think writing needs to sound important, and so they open up the thesaurus and drag out every complicated word they can find.  (I spent ten years dealing with sentences like this—and much, much worse.)

Does this mean we have to write everything like a Dick and Jane story? (“See Jane Run. See Dick laugh. See Jane sue.”) No. Word length has little to do with it. “Through” is a lot longer than “to”, but they take almost the same time to read.

It’s all about the syllables.

Let’s look at those two sentences again. The first sentence has five (1+1+1+1+1) syllables, while the second one has ten (1+3+3+1+2)—twice as many.

And I hazard a guess that second sentence would take twice as long to read. (How long it would take to understand is another story.)

 

Keep it simple

So, should you now start counting the syllables in every sentence you write? Well, not unless you’re really bored. And while I think Microsoft Word’s readability statistics can be quite useful, you don’t really need them either.

Instead, just read what you’ve written—out loud if you want a seat to yourself on the bus. And wherever you see a word that’s complicated, see if you’d be better off with a simpler one.

So instead of “commence”, try “start”.

Instead of “discontinue”, try “stop”.

And instead of “projected”, try “threw” (or “hurled”, “tossed” or whatever the boy did with that damn ball).

You don’t need to change every word. The last thing you want is to destroy your writing’s natural rhythm. And some words have no simple alternative, or at least nothing as precise.

But don’t choose a complicated word because it sounds important. Your message is what’s important, and you can deliver it just as well with simple words.

And don’t think that you’re “dumbing down” your message and cheating your reader, either. You’re not only making it clearer for them, you’re saving them time.

And they will appreciate it.

 

Comments

  1. Wow Bill when I write my book, I will be using you as my reader. But dealing with children all day I won’t need to remember easier words.

  2. Hi Bill, I have an Australian writing blog and would love to have you follow. I try to cover the things other people don’t – keeping the focus on the personal business of writing. I also have a competition page and other pages. and have a particular interest in promoting other writers in building their platform.

    Merlene

  3. If writing copy, I have the idea of keeping it as long as it needs to be. A product that is complex or large naturally requires a longer copy, and vice versa. Would you agree Bill?

    • I definitely agree. If you’re going to write about something in depth, then naturally the copy is going to be longer. (Though I sincerely hope it’s broken up with subheadings and the like.)

      But that doesn’t mean you need to drag out the big words. You can still write about complex products using mostly simple words. I say “mostly” because if you’re writing for a particular industry then you may be using industry terms that usually aren’t so simple.

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