How to Lose 30 Pounds of Word Flab Overnight

I don’t necessarily recommend short copy. The best copywriters know that long copy sells. You need to give yourself enough room to actually make a convincing argument — the elevator pitch is all good and well, but the only thing it can ever do is to spark enough curiosity to continue the conversation.

But I always recommend lean copy. And it’s twice as important online. Whipping copy into shape is an important skill for any writer, because all of us start with flabby first drafts. Fortunately, toning up your writing is a lot easier than curls, crunches and hover squats.

I recently submitted a chapter to the group writing project, the Age of Conversation. My chapter will teach readers how to craft a persuasive message (in the traditional PR and marketing sense) using social media. The chapter needed to introduce my idea, hook the reader, explain the meat of my proposal, and convince the reader to take the action I wanted. Oh, and this was given 400 words–less space than I usually spend on a blog post about a toddler easter egg hunt.

I love this sort of exercise, because it always pushes us to find the best in our work. Here are the most important skills I relied on to get my pudgy little chapter into peak condition.

Look for junk words

The downside to the conversational “write like you talk” blog style is that it introduces a lot of unnecessary words. Pruning needless words is some of the most basic writing advice around, but it’s still overlooked.

To get started, just delete the word very. While you’re at it, get rid of cowardly qualifiers like “it seems” or “just might be” or “could be considered.” Wimpiness is for first drafts. If it helps you to visualize Hans and Franz at this point, feel free.

Next, strip out as many adjectives and adverbs as you can. You don’t have to take them all out, but these modifiers are more powerful when they’re used sparingly. Whenever you can, make adjectives unnecessary by using a more specific noun or verb. Experiment to see how much you can cut and still keep your meaning.

Before: The gleaming red motorcycle’s engine roared loudly as the bike raced down the street and turned the corner amazingly quickly.

After: The Ducati snarled around the corner.

Eliminate redundancy

Once you’ve cleared away meaningless words, wimpy qualifiers and excess adjectives and adverbs, look for redundant expressions like “winter months” or “four-year-old child.”

Beyond redundant expressions, look for redundant ideas. As I’m reviewing my own work, I always find whole sentences — and often whole paragraphs or subsections — that can go. Do all your testimonials address the same reader objection? Are you using three examples that make the same point?

Find your strongest example, make it even stronger with concrete detail, then let it stand alone. Remember, Web readers skim. If you give them four examples, you have only yourself to blame if they read the weakest one. Do the work for your reader. Cut everything but your strongest story, then make it even stronger.

The art of the spin-off

Very often, copy outgrows its container because you’re working with too many ideas. For example, my Copyblogger post last week on using specific details was a little overstuffed — so I clipped out some musings on numbers and developed them into a post for my own blog.

Whether you’re putting together a Web site, an email autoresponder or a blog, each message should carry one muscular idea. Pull any tangents out of your first draft and save them for another piece. Not only will your writing be leaner and more compelling, but you’ll always have a start on tomorrow’s post.

What not to cut

No matter how lean your writing, do anything you can to keep specific examples, vivid details and powerful stories. (Ideally, all three of these will come together in one sleek, sculpted paragraph of steel.) A narrowly focused idea with a great story to illustrate it will crush a wide-reaching article that lacks the punch of a strong example.

There you have it: three simple techniques that will pummel your girlie-man copy into the best shape of its life. And you’ll hardly have to break a sweat.

About the Author: Get more remarkable marketing advice from Sonia Simone by subscribing to her blog today.

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Reader Comments (60)

  1. says

    Overall, I agree on all counts. However, the problem with removing too much descriptive can be removing recognition as well. If I don’t know what a “Ducati” is … snarling or purring … and I have to leave the piece to research the term you’ve lost me as a reader.

  2. says

    I agree with Char. In my case, I really do not know what a “Ducati” is. Your shortened version stripped away the visual picture that I had in my mind, with the descriptive one.

    However, most certainly, I agree with the idea of eliminating redundancy, where it is possible to.

  3. says

    Sure, you always have to know your reader and you always have to strike that balance. I do (rarely) see copy that’s been cut too far.

    But most of the time, you’ll lose more readers with wheezy, overgrown copy than you will with lean copy that has a term or two they don’t know.

  4. says

    Smart advice. Personally I hate all those adjectives in promotional copy. But if you’re writing SEO copy you do sometimes have to grit yout teeth and include the odd flabby (but essential) phrase, if that’s what you need to be found for.

  5. says

    I have a good time with the readability scale. There are times when I can defend what I have written even though I want to get my passive % lower. The lower writing just doesn’t say it.

  6. says

    I don’t think we need to describe or define everything in our posts either. If we use a word or idea someone doesn’t understand then they can look it up!

    I don’t think we should try to dress up our copy with a bunch of elevated terms, but we shouldn’t dumb it down either. Write naturally and you will get the crowd you want.

  7. says

    Excellent advice. I have often struggled with making my writing too “fat”. These trimming techniques will serve well. Thank you very much for sharing this

  8. says

    Thanks for posting this. Many years ago had a paper hanging next to my desk with some of these same suggestions. I have long since lost that paper, but now have your great post to look at whenever I want.

  9. says

    Thanks for the excellent post!

    I really found it useful as I am a good writer, but an extremely bad (or yet untrained) copywriter.

    I think this will benefit me vastly in my next attempt to do a sales copy!


  10. says

    Great post – I’m always amazed by how much fluff I end up cutting from my copy.

    One more problem word I’ve noticed…the word “that” often doesn’t need to be there.

    “It was the book that he wanted” to “It was the book he wanted”

  11. Selina N says

    I have to say that when I’m presented with copy rich with adjectives and adverbs, I cringe, thinking that if the product/service was “must have” it would speak to me without the need for colouring and persuading. But that could be the (cynical) marketer in me talking.

    For me, the second sentence (ducati) was far more compelling, as it allowed me to build a visual specific to myself, rather than have someone else do it for me.

  12. says

    Selina, that’s a big one that I’ve learned from Brian as much as anyone. A conclusion that your reader creates for herself is much stronger than a conclusion you paint for her. When the reader “owns” some of the meaning, it gets stronger.

    @Bucktowndusty, I overuse “very” myself, but most of the time if you cut it, you don’t notice at all. If you do feel something’s lacking after you cut it, use a stronger word that carries the “very” meaning within it. Once in awhile it’s worth keeping because it helps the rhythm of the sentence, but 99% of the time it can go.

    @JudyA, I always find the readability scale slightly mortifying. I’m both rotten at getting my copy simple enough to score 5th grade or whatever it is we’re shooting for, and embarrassed that it’s only 9th grade. Clearly I have some mindset issues to work on. :)

  13. Selina N says

    Exactly! an example which comes to mind is Apple. They don’t tell consumers how they should feel, however via suggestive imagery, they let the consumer paint their own image, thus “owning” a part of the brand.

    Ever try telling an i-fanatic that the i pod/phone/etc is no good??

    I have lived to tell, but only just.

  14. says

    Well done, Sonia. I tend to be prolific with my words at times, and I often go back and reread to see if there’s something I’ve said more than once, used to many examples or that just doesn’t need to be there.

    I love, love, love concise copy. There’s nothing more satisfying than chopping 500 words into 200 effective ones. It’s bliss.

  15. says

    My first draft is called “Pillsbury dough boy” copy. When it gets all cleaned up it is “buff-babe.” That turns around the sexist assumption that the inferior soft flabby product is automatically feminine and the superior lean and hard body product is automatically masculine.

  16. says

    My weakness words are “really” and “actually.” I overuse them. As far as adjectives go, if you want to see a horrid example, read J.K. Rowling as an example of what not to do.

    The best take-away from your post, Sonia, has got to be the “art of the spin-off.” That is seriously excellent advice. No more “everything but the kitchen sink” style posts!

  17. says

    I always struggle keeping anything I write short and concise. I like concise, it’s just that my first drafts are never that way.

    Speaking of “just,” I’m always editing that word out.

  18. says

    Culling my copy is one of the most creative aspects of writing for me. I sometimes find it hard to “kill my darlings” but it’s usually the answer to building compelling writing.

  19. Ruben says

    If a reader don’t know what a “Ducati” is …
    You should include a link to a post that describes what a Ducati is. Then the copy stays short, but everything will stay clear.

  20. says

    Loved your post. It seems so common sense, but it’s always good to be reminded…

    “Ducati” brings up the concept of a focused target market, not a broad market. Targeted traffic/market will know what a “ducati” is.

    Thanks again for sharing your experience and views.

  21. says

    In advertisng too, ‘long’ copy seems to be making a valiant comeback. I agree – good copy is lean, yet muscular. And at its best, the words sculpt an image for the reader.

  22. says

    Although not always, I most commonly write my blog posts in sessions rather than in a single sitting due to time constraints. I’ll sketch out the basic concept, then revisit it over the course of the morning, day, or even several days and refine it along the way.

    I find that when I step away from a post and then come back to it for a subsequent or final tweak, I often identify grammatical errors, typos, or just poor structure and can fix those problems before I’ve ever hit the “publish” button.

    The downside is that this can sometimes lead to overthinking or getting excessively verbose so I try to be mindful to pare the post down as I make revisions.

    Also, there’s something to be said for taking a “long copy” article and breaking it up into a couple or series of blog posts. This gives you more posts but with essentially the same amount of content, can help to chop up an article that’s very lengthy, and also can be used to hook visitors – turning them in to subscribers!

  23. says

    i like conversational style blogs.. as they potentially provide entertainment and gives the readers an insight into how you think

    though i take your point about cutting out alot of loose words

  24. says

    The title of this post made me chuckle, so appropriate for me.

    Tonight I set out to write an article and came across this site. Well, 3 hours later I am still reading and loving every bit of info I came across thus far.

    Thank you. Dita

  25. says

    I like the line “pruning unnecessary words.” Brilliant.
    And I work for a company that stresses the need for brevity in copy (to say the least!) so this was a good read.
    PS Has anyone read books by Rudolph Flesch? He was Mr. Hyper-write-for-clarity in his day, and he devised a mathematical equation called the readability test. Copywriters take note.

  26. says

    I read your article and than checked for those words like “very” and I couldn’t find them. I agree when reading it makes more sense without those meaningless words. It’s far for me to be a good copywriter. I think this article is my first step though. Thanks Sonia.

  27. says

    By far one of my favorite posts. “The Ducati snarled around the corner” painted a perfect picture. I felt the vibrations and took in the exhaust of the engine.

    Six words changed a paragraph of yawing into an adventure on a high speed bike as it ripped around a country road.

    Great post….thanks!

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