This guest post is by Dan Kaufman of Media Survival.
Most people don’t read online – they scan. They read the first few words of a sentence and, if they don’t like it, they’ll start scanning the page looking for something else that might help them.
This was the verdict from usability guru Jakob Nielsen back in 1997, and it’s even more relevant now that reading on mobiles has become so prevalent.
Of course, Nielsen was generalising – after all, the New Yorker website wouldn’t exist if people didn’t read online – but the key is to make your copy as compelling as possible.
5 Quick Tips to Make Your Copy Shorter and Snappier
The good news is that there are some key tips and techniques that will immediately help anyone:
1. Write Short Sentences
If you find yourself reading a book that’s so easy to read you can’t stop turning the pages … well, force yourself to stop so you can look at the sentence lengths. The odds are they’ll be short and punchy.
Ideally, your sentences shouldn’t be any longer than 27 words – and 32 is the maximum. While there are exceptions to this, they ought to be rare.
Remember that a sentence should make one – and only one – point. If your sentence is longer than 32 words, it’s probably trying to say too much.
2. Use the Active Voice
Have a look at the following two sentences:
The juggler dropped the balls.
The balls were dropped by the juggler.
Which one is punchier?
It’s the first sentence because the subject (the juggler) is doing something to the object (the balls) – which is what active voice is all about.
In most sentences, the subject should appear before the object as it’s more direct and requires fewer words – and the fewer words, the snappier the sentence becomes.
3. Write in the Present Tense
If you read the features sections of most newspapers or magazines, you’ll notice that the copy is usually written in the present tense rather than the past (even though most news stories are written in the past tense).
The reason is that present tense is more immediate. For example, if you’re writing a restaurant review then:
The waiter drops my steak into my lap
puts a reader into the scene faster than:
The waiter dropped my steak into my lap
4. Use Positive Language
This means avoiding negative words such as no, not, and didn’t, when appropriate. You’ll see why when you look at the following example:
The service is not good
The service is terrible
The bottom example reads better since, as with using active voice, making sentences positive often makes them snappier.
5. Write in a conversational tone
A lot of people don’t realise that good writing means using a conversational tone, albeit with better grammar than you would use when talking to a friend in a bar.
Avoid hype, pretentious words, jargon and acronyms – instead of impressing readers it’s a turn off. You should never talk down to your readers by using language they may not understand and you should never assume they know something they may not.
Unless you’re trying to spin something or confuse, use simple, clear and direct language. As the old saying goes, if you confuse your readers you lose your readers.
George Orwell put it another way in The Politics of the English Language:
“The great enemy of clear language is insincerity. When there is a gap between one’s real and one’s declared aims, one turns as it were instinctively to long words and exhausted idioms, like a cuttlefish squirting out ink.”
Dan Kaufman runs Media Survival, where he conducts writing for the web workshops. He worked at The Sydney Morning Herald for more than 11 years, primarily as an editor, prior to that.