Blaise Pascal, a French mathematician, logician, physicist and theologian of the 17th Century, wrote in a letter, “Je n’ai fait celle-ci plus longue que parceque je n’ai pas eu le loisir de la faire plus courte.” (“I have only made this letter rather long because I have not had time to make it shorter.”)
As copywriters, we don’t have the option Monsieur Pascal had. We almost always need to write short, pithy texts in a minimum amount of time (with clients often replying, “Yesterday,” to the question, “And when do you need it by?”). We become experts at finding just the right few words to instantly convey ideas that can fill volumes.
So, how do we accomplish this under-appreciated feat?
My own approach is something I like to call “The One-Third Rule”:
Look at whatever you write – a sentence, a paragraph, an article – and find one-third of the text you can slash. If it still says all you want to say, see if there is another third you can cut without warping the content beyond recognition. Keep going until you are satisfied that one more cut would cause the meaning and desired effect to be lost.
Easier said than done, right?
Well, there are a few tricks I have picked up over the years.
• Break up long sentences with multiple ideas into two shorter and sharper sentences.
• The same can be done with sentences that are schlepping along with too many clauses.
• Cut bits of text that serve only as filler, adding no information or emotional pull.
• Eliminate information that should be obvious from the context. (This little tidbit can actually be the hardest to pull off.)
How about some examples from the field?
• The company “successfully attempted to [do something]” is just a convoluted way of saying that it “[did something]”.
• The phrase “is something that” is just a bunch of extra words. If, for example, your product is indeed “something that improves the quality of customer service”, then just say it “improves customer service.” Same meaning, half the letters.
• Similarly, “is something that has been” is really just “has been”. And “is not something that can” is actually “can not”.
• If a product “has the potential to” do something – change the world, say – then why not just write that it “may” do so? (Of course, better messaging would eliminate all doubt in the reader’s mind that the product is a game-changer, but for our purposes we’ll only look at the slash-and-burn side of things.)
• Personally, I have never understood “the coming days and weeks”. If something is expected in coming weeks, what does “days” add to the sentence? Clearly, the coming weeks include a whole bunch of days.
• “Located on” or “located at” can most times just be written as “on” or “at”, with no loss of meaning. (If you’re interested in a grammatical reasoning, dropping “located” avoids complicating the sentence with another verb and, in theory, a whole new clause.)
• By the way, there is nothing wrong with “there is”, instead of “there exists”.
Finally, as a general rule every copywriter knows, active verbs are preferable to passive verbs. When used correctly, though, they also trim the text by eliminating unnecessary intricacies.
Now, if I know my fellow writers, there are many of you out there who are already picking apart this article for being far too long. Well, as Monsieur Pascal might have said: “C’est la vie.”
Nissan Ratzlav-Katz, the founder of NRK Consulting, is an experienced copywriter and editor. His clients include hi-tech, agrotech, mobile and biotech companies, PR agencies and security firms, as well as non-profit and academic organizations. Read what people are saying about him.