Writing to Space

Working on some small space ads for a client this week, I was reminded of Cicero’s quote: “If I had more time, I would have written a shorter letter.”

Woodrow Wilson’s response to how long he needed to prepare for a speech is also appropriate: “It depends. If I am to speak ten minutes, I need a week for preparation; if fifteen minutes, three days; if half an hour, two days; if an hour, I am ready now.”

When you have a limited amount of space/time, you must be very concise.  Search for the right word, rather than using a phrase.  Avoid empty adjectives and focus on verbs and adverbs for more impact.

A downside of the digital age is the tendency towards, what a friend calls, “diarrhea of the keyboard.”  It costs nothing to print, so the writer can go on and on without saying much.  The cost is on the poor person who has to read the information or wants to print out the web page, blog post, email, etc.  Add the fact that fewer people proof their work before posting/sending and it is easy to see what havoc progress has wrought.

The irony is that people have less time to read lengthy writing.  You need to communicate quickly and clearly or the reader will move on.  Just look at the dismal statistics about how much time a viewer spends on a web page and you understand the need for succinct communication.

My lesson in concise writing started in college when I was a journalism student and editor of the student newspaper.  I needed to write as “tightly” as I could because the article could be cut due to space limitations.  So I put the most important points as early in the article as I could.  Better the editor eliminate less important information at the end of the article than have him or her edit throughout and cut some crucial fact.

In my first job after graduating I used my journalism skills at a public relations agency, but quickly moved into promotional writing.  I wrote a newsletter highlighting new products in which I had four or five paragraphs to explain the product’s features and benefits, and why someone should purchase it.  I also wrote short brochures and flyers, and finally graduated to advertisements.  A full-page trade ad was dominated by a headline and photo, leaving less than one-third of the page for the body copy.

Through the years I have been asked to “write to space”.  Sure you can reduce the type size, but that will only go so far before the copy is unreadable.  The greatest challenge is writing to a word count.  In tradeshow programs and directory listings I often had 50, 75 or 100 words for a description.  Talk about making every word count!  It might take an hour or two to pare to 50 words.

So here’s the exercise.  Try writing about your company or one of its products/services in 100 words or less.  The description must be differentiating, benefit-oriented and motivate a prospect to take the next step (purchase, learn more, etc.).  Once you perfect this short description, try testing it against longer copy to see which gets a better response.  You might find that less is more.

P.S.  I wish I had more time to work on this article.

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