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.
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.