Here’s How Brevity Can Crush Your Copy

image of crushed can

We tell you the importance of tight editing all the time.

We tell you lean writing is powerful and effective.

We tell you it just plain works better.

Except when it doesn’t.

Consider these common terms:

  • An “ATM machine” is an automatic teller machine machine.
  • The “HIV virus” is the human immunodeficiency virus virus.
  • A “PIN number” is a personal identification number number.

You see these acronym “mistakes” all the time, from storefronts, to mainstream media, to communications from financial institutions. Are these writers just clueless?

Redundant Repetition

Check out these other common expressions:

  • added bonus
  • over-exaggerate
  • end result
  • future plans
  • unconfirmed rumor
  • past history
  • safe haven
  • potential hazard
  • completely surrounded
  • false pretense

In each case, 50% of the words used are technically unnecessary. But are they truly unnecessary?

The Paradox of “Free Gift”

The best example of why avoiding redundancy can hurt you instead of help is the common use of “free gift” in promotions. A gift is, by definition, free.

That kind of redundancy must be bad writing, right?

Except when split-tested, “free gift” has historically outperformed “gift” alone. So when it comes to writing that works, ruthless brevity is not always a good thing – and why the technically redundant “free gift” remains so popular.

Remember, brevity means using no more words than necessary, not necessarily fewer words. If redundancy works better in certain instances (determined by testing), those words become necessary, and perhaps even essential, to the success of a message.

In other words, eliminating necessary words is not actual brevity at all.

The Understood Message Converts

This may drive some purists crazy. Redundancy, however, remains a linguistically valid way of increasing the effectiveness of a message. In any case where repetition actually aids in meaning and understanding, it’s not tautology (or needless redundancy); it’s actually a good thing.

Don’t assume people best understand you based on your own linguistic logic. It’s a noisy world out there, and the best copy educates people in a way that the brain finds easy to digest.

Sometimes, better copy has you technically repeating yourself. Or saying the same thing twice, if you will.

About the Author: Brian Clark is founder of Copyblogger and CEO of Copyblogger Media. Get more from Brian on Twitter.

P.S. If you think split-testing is a pain, you haven’t tried Premise. Create great landing pages with WordPress, get loads of built-in copywriting advice, and split-test your words with ease. Find out more here.

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  1. Brian:

    I think the key point here is when you focused on free. It was split testing that showed that adding free to gift increased readership.

    If I had a choice between getting a major of marketers ideas on a topic….getting the results of some well conducted tests…guess what? The tests win hands down.

    Having said that, the tests must be conducted using sound scientific methods. In statistical sampling, it would mean a good representative sample, where the tests can be replicated.

    Randy

  2. I think the best quote I’ve heard regarding language is this…

    Language follows rules; it doesn’t follow orders.

    Tighten, test, tighten, test. Repeat.

  3. Well Split Testing requires a lot of patience, which very few people have in them.

    So keep a cool & patient mindset and then start off testing. Don’t be afraid of getting “nothing” out of it. Remember, you’ll gain experience if “nothing”.

    • With the tools out now, it’s getting easier. Patience is definitely required, but I’ve found that to be true with anything that makes more money.

  4. Nice post, got me thinking for sure. I don’t think a lot of people realize what words they’re using when they write. I for sure, wasn’t aware of the examples you put above. I had to re-read them in order to understand what was exactly being said. Thanks for sharing!

  5. Great article Brian. Brevity doesn’t always work when persuading people to take action. I’m sure you’ve heard this, but for those who haven’t…

    Get Updates (it’s free) often performs better than Get Free Updates.

    The latter has less words, and the former gets more subscribers.

    • True dat. I think I used that example previously (although it was Paras Chopra of Visual Website Optimizer who told me about it).

      • I’m not sure where I first heard about it. I just tested it out on a few places, and saw it converted better. So naturally, I used it.

  6. For me, personally, I enjoyed how you exerted the added extra effort of sprinkling stealthy examples within the copy of your post ;)

  7. I’ve always wondered why they called it a “hot water heater”. There’s all sorts of little oddities and redundancies in language, and it’s rarely ever talked about in this context, so thanks for bringing it up. :)

    • Jamie, you’ve just nailed one of my “gnat bites” (a gnat bite is something inconsequential but that irritates the hell out of you anyway).

      It is realy a cold water heater or just a water heater, but it is NOT a hot water heater. Hot water doesn’t need heating.

  8. Doh! I make these mistakes! Anybody want to volunteer to be my editor? LOL!

  9. Super awesome post. ;)

  10. One of my favorites was when CBS debuted “Navy NCIS”. At least they got it and changed it to just NCIS.

  11. I don’t know about anyone else, but when I see “Free Gift”, I always assume there’s a catch.

  12. I don’t see why effective writing and non-redundant writing have to be mutually exclusive. Why use “free gift” when the important thing seems to be to use the word “free” somewhere in the copy? Why not say “You get [blank] free…it’s our gift to you”? Do readers really NOT know that an ATM is a “machine,” HIV is a “virus” and a PIN is a “number”? Maybe if our writing isn’t clear, rather than adding redundant words to hit our readers over the head, we need to write more clearly.

    An example of this that seems to be everywhere now is “Please RSVP.” Of course, given that the “SVP” is short for the French phrase meaning “please,” “Please RSVP” means “Please please answer.” Why do this? The explanation is probably something like “Many readers today are so unfamiliar even with common foreign phrases like this that they don’t know what ‘RSVP’ stands for, so they don’t see it as redundant.” Well, I ask: if you think they don’t know what “RSVP” means, why would you ask them to “please” do it?” If you don’t think your audience understands what “RSVP” stands for, don’t use it. Ask them to “please respond” or “please reserve your space” or write “Planning to attend? Call or email…” Whatever it takes to get the message across.

    There are also other solutions to phrasing like “HIV virus”: “HIV, the virus that causes AIDS.” Why assume you have to use the lazy redundancy because your audience is too dumb to get the message any other way? Yes, it may take a little more time and thought, but many times redundant phrasing can be avoided, and the reader will still get the message.

    • Tru, you’ve given great examples — for testing. Each one is more verbose than the straight redundancies, which is not necessarily a bad thing.

      But I will say this: the audience is not dumb. In fact, you’re only guessing, and they will tell you exactly what works better by actually taking action.

      So, as long as you’re throwing out alternatives to test that violate the brevity rule, good on you. If you think your suggestions are “right” without testing, you’re the one treating the audience as “dumb” and your ego as superior.

  13. Simple but solid lesson, I like it. I wish more posts on copyblogger were like this.

  14. I love this kind of stuff, Brian!

    One of my all-time favoritest in the whole world redundancies has got to be:

    “Ir-regaaahdless”, which is very popular in New England, especially Boston.

    George Carlin did a great bit on this years ago, where he rails on English speakers’ obsession with “the prefix ‘pre’”. Hahaha! Beautiful.

    Thanks, Brian!

  15. I recently wrote a number of articles for submission to Ezine Articles. In one of them I used the term “very very strange” as an exagerated description. They rejected it. In fact they rejected the article 6 times!
    In the end it was unrecognisable as my original article. Contained No Fun, No ‘Conversational’ English; in fact in the end No Meat.

    I believe that it’s often better to write in conversational English, than literal grammar. make the article more engaging and relaxed.

    Oh yes, they told me to write in correct grammar. I have a degree in English, and have written for a number of publications, including newspapers.

    So the next article I submit will be:
    Weak – wet – wimpy – dull and uninformative!

    • Or just write what you want, in smart conversational language, and run it as a guest post instead. Works better these days anyway. :)

    • Alan,
      One of the great Robert Gunning’s rules for clear writing was “write to express not to impress.” I’ve always tried to follow that and have never had any problems with Ezine Articles in 3 years.

      Then again, I prefer F Scott Fitzgerald and Earle Stanley Gardner to Tolstoy and Jane Austin. No accounting for taste is their?

      Regards

      Leon

  16. Awesome! I’ve always had issues with “MLB” baseball as well.

  17. In the spirit of brevity, I’ll simply say … clarity rules :)

  18. I guess it aint’ important what’s correct, only what communicates best.

  19. I wasn’t sure where you were leading at first, however you’ve made an excellent point. It is one thing to be brief, but quite another to be succinct. I’ve heard many times, with respect to effective writing, the mantra of “say what you’re going to say, say it, then sum up by saying what you’ve said”.

    That way you guide the readers attention to best receive the message you are attempting to communicate with them. 

    Another interesting technique is “keep it at level 7″. What it means is to present as though your audience only has a year/grade 7 level education (measured in Australian school terms).

    An acquaintance said that when he did it he was able to communicate so much more effectively because you don’t over-, nor under, estimate the knowledge level of your audience.

    Has anyone else had similar experiences?

  20. Bravo! I often tell my clients that although it’s logical that a gift is free – one still needs to grab the attention of the consumer – and gift does not do the same thing as adding the word FREE. And for crying out loud – keep using it! What cracks me up are the marketers that say Free Gift followed by just pay shipping and handling. Really….?

    Thinking like the consumer is key – and if you want to engage across a mass market and grab their attention – then USE THE TRIED AND TRUE BUZZ WORDS, even if they are redundant, used too often, and over done…ha ha

    Great post – so simple yet so important.
    follow me – @cdirectresponse

  21. One common use of unnecessary words that drives me crazy are blog posts that open with ….”It’s well known that ….”

    If it’s well known then why do you need to remind us?!

    Brian, you definitely take copywriting to another level . Thanks for the insights.

  22. Interesting Brian. I’d never thought about this. You must have taken a long time compiling that list of redundant sayings. That was a rare treat to read!

    Get it, “rare treat.” Heh

    No seriously, split testing IS a pain. I had to do that for my client. We used Google split testing. It took me … hours to figure out. I got so frustrated, when I finally figured out how to do it in the middle of the night, I wrote a bog post explaining how.

    The cool part is that when you Google “split test”, I’m on the first page of results.

  23. I think I’m stuck on slow today… I had to read this sentence 2-3 times: “brevity means using no more words than necessary, not necessarily fewer words.”

    But it all makes total sense. The next step for me is to refresh my landing pages and kick things into high gear.

  24. thanks for this. I wondered about the “free gift” thing before too, so it’s nice to know someone else finds it helpful.

  25. Ha ha ha! It’s funny because in fiction writing class, we’re taught to cut those repetitious phrases. Cut, snip and edit them outta there. When switching hats for copywriting, those same repetitions enliven the copy and are part of what gets viewers to take action. Those juicy repetitive power words do get the copywriting mojo going.

    Here’s another one for free gift: complimentary offer.

    • “Here’s another one for free gift: complimentary offer” and that leads right into complimentary very often used for complementary which drives me up a wall!

      Great conversation, thank you for starting it Brian,

      Fran

  26. I just read a book at Barnes and Nobles on this (Yes I still shop at book stores). I write the way I talk and I’m 100% guilty of using redundant words. I learned a few things in this post, but when I’ll start implementing them is another story.

  27. This reminds me of a favorite quotation by Einstein: Make everthing as simple as possible, but no simpler.

  28. Hi Brian!

    Redundancy is one of my pet peeves but I still find myself doing it sometimes.

    I see your point about the “free gift.” Although, technically, you could really do away with the word “free” but it has evolved into the reader’s consciousness that getting a mere “gift” may just mean that there could be a catch somewhere. And so, the word “free” has become part and parcel of giving away “gifts.”

    Thanks for sharing the examples. Was trying to think of some.

  29. If one is selling something, the style of writing must be simple and understood quickly. It must be understood by those for whom English is a second language. It must be understood by the cell phone generation. But in the case of fiction, I wish someone would write a book with big words that would stretch me and have me reaching for the dictionary. I wish an author would make full use of the English language and use wit, & delightful figures of speech that I can entertain me.

  30. G’Day Brian,
    At the risk of upsetting all sorts of people, perhaps it’s worthwhile remembering this. For all their intrinsic beauty and innate worthiness, words are primarily vehicles for meaning.

    It really doesn’t matter how many or how few you use. The key question is this. Does the reader understand what you mean?

    And how’s Sonia’s beard coming along?

    Best Wishes

    Leon

  31. I feel like I’ve reached a pinocle (posting similarly to Copyblogger!) – http://karenselliott.wordpress.com/2011/03/24/the-secret-of-pleonasms/

  32. So tell me — in general, does LONG copy really still pull better and more effectively than short? Although my gut twlls me no, everyone else still seems to swear by long copy — the kind that goes on and on and on and on, almost as if battering the prospect ’til he or she finally falls to his/her knees and cries, “OK, OK — I give up!
    l’ll buy it!”

    • Yes it does, but it depends on what you’re selling and who the target audience is. Long copy covers all the points and objections people might have to the product. It also has testimonials, case studies, and anything else as proof the product, program or service works. Short copy doesn’t have all that, but it could have one or two of those things on the page. Long copy, in my opinion, makes for better sales b/c the copywriter speaks to every kind of personality type. There’s some people who want ALL the information and long copy addresses it. There’s some who already know about the product or person and just want to buy. There’s also some who need proof it works. And so on… I hope I answered your question.

    • Gabrielle pretty much nailed it, but I’ll give you examples.

      Go to Amazon and look how much copy it takes to sell a book. Now go look how much copy they use to sell a 52 inch flat screen TV. Or a Macbook Pro.

      The bigger the purchase, the more copy that’s needed. That’s not the only time a lot of copy is required, but it’s one example.

      Here’s an article that explains other instances when long copy might be necessary.

  33. I like how this works for speaking as well. Sometimes to be sure that your audience picks up on what you say, you need to mention that the ATM you are referencing is a machine, and not some other acronym.

    I’m not familiar with split-testing. I’ll have to read your links on that as well. But when I think of the difference between “gift” and “free gift”, I think of a gift as something personal, and a free gift as “free stuff”.

  34. It’s so much more enjoyable to not receive the conversation (yesterday I had clicked on follow the conversation button) in my email that reflect all the different takes (egos) – I would much rather sit back and enjoy the brevity of my morning email from CopyBlogger.

  35. I’d like to add “very unique” to the list. I was recently at a trade show and overheard that phrase used at least 10 times. I had to resist the urge to walk up to those people and say, “Did you skip the fourth grade?” That’s when I recall receiving the lesson on the usage of the word “unique.”

  36. Brian-

    As a senior government official with the Department of Redundancy Department, I wanted to personally thank you for bringing these terms to our attention. We make every effort to completely annihilate these excess not needed repetitive redundancies. That is our mission and what we were founded to do. Many, many thanks, on behalf of an appreciative grateful nation and country.

    Sincerely-
    John Johnson, Jr.

  37. Great post. I’ve really learned a lot. Your article improved the way of writing not to be redundant and still, a linguistically valid way of increasing the effectiveness of a message. Thanks for the share.

  38. I can’t begin to tell you how large a role most of the bullet point phrases you referenced at the beginning of your piece are to my personal arsenal.

    Effective written communication is a balancing act. The rules of grammar are obviously important to ensure your message is understood. But on the other side of the coin, the manner in which these “rules” dictate we should write, so often don’t jive with the way people actually communicate.

    Excellent article!

  39. Sometimes, we have to write what works. Sometimes, we have to write in a way that reflects what people are used to hearing. As noted above, you don’t need a “hot water heater”. I think that usage was coined by the Department of Redundancy Deparment.