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How to write concise copy

I’ll get to the point. People don’t have time to read endless posts. But neither do people have time to write short ones. So, here’s a quick, actionable guide to writing concise copy.

How to write concise copy

Ditch the adverbs

Good writers hate adverbs. Steven King believes the “road to hell is paved” with them, and Mark Twain said he was “dead” to them. That’s because they are rarely necessary and suggest lazy writing.

Take the word “really”, an adverb of adverbs. Instead of saying “really tired”, why not dig deeper and say “exhausted” or “spent”? Certain adverbs (often, safely, unusually…) are unavoidable when you need to emphasise how something is done (“I go to the cinema often”). Nevertheless, used too frequently and, instead of strengthening a text, adverbs will annoy and bore readers.

Ditch the adjectives

I wont waffle on here, I’ll just repeat what Mark Twain said about adjectives:

“When you catch an adjective, kill it. No, I don’t mean utterly, but kill most of them—then the rest will be valuable. They weaken when they are close together. They give strength when they are wide apart. An adjective habit, or a wordy, diffuse, flowery habit, once fastened upon a person, is as hard to get rid of as any other vice.”

As with adverbs, use adjectives sparingly, when emphasis is needed. For example, the sentence “the big dog barked loudly” sounds punchier if you cut out the adjective and adverb – “the dog barked”. If you need to distinguish a big dog from, say, a small dog, only then is the adjective necessary. Instead, find a more descriptive noun. For example, rather than saying “difficult problem”, say “predicament”.

Keep it short and sweet

David Ogilvy, the advertising tycoon, once sent a memo to his management team to circulate. In it he listed ten tips for writing clear concise copy. Number three and five on the list, respectively, state:

3. Use short words, short sentences and short paragraphs

5. Never write more than two pages on any subject

To be fair, these rules were written to ensure that managers kept business communications clear and concise, however, the principle of getting to the point still applies to all styles of writing.

Writing is rewriting

If your first draft waffles on a bit, that’s ok, the idea is just to get everything down in writing. But then it’s time to be ruthless with your copy. Rewrite it, deleting unnecessary words and phrases. If it no longer makes sense, add them back in until it does. Why not ask someone who doesn’t know the subject to read it for you? If they can understand and summarise it, and didn’t get bored, you’re on the right track.

William Strunk, the author of The Elements Of Style, sumarised the key to concise copy well when he said:

“A sentence should contain no unnecessary words, a paragraph no unnecessary sentences, for the same reason that a drawing should have no unnecessary lines and a machine no unnecessary parts. This requires not that the writer make all his sentences short, or that he avoid all detail and treat his subjects only in outline, but that every word tell.”

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