The secret behind successful copywriting…

My writing resolution for 2014: never use three words when one will do

Keeping it brief…

In the first week or so of any New Year, TV and the written press bombard us lesser mortals with talk of New Year’s resolutions. If you haven’t yet come up with a resolution for your business or organisation, here’s a suggestion to make your marketing and social media campaigns more engaging. It’s very simple: be brief.

As an eager journalism student years ago, I have vivid memories of receiving my first assignment back from our lecturer – an articulate, erudite lady with an impeccable track record in lexical manipulation.

To my horror, I noted that more of my precious words seemed to have been deleted than actually remained on the page – and, judging by the reaction of my classmates, my experience was not unique. They, too, had suffered a savage and apparently unprovoked attack on their verbosity.

Our lecturer’s writing mantra, she explained, was to remove every word that was not doing a job.

When I reread the offensively red text she’d handed me, I realised that she hadn’t changed the meaning of my writing one whit: she had simply removed the parts she deemed “redundant”. And what was the result of her interventions? Precisely the same message was conveyed in around 30% fewer words…

This baptism of fire at the hands of an editor who wielded a red pen like a scalpel was a stark reminder that in copywriting, as in so many other aspects of life, it is quality – not quantity – that matters.

Take slogans. They’re an excellent example of writers making words work hard for a living – in just three words, companies such as Nike (“Just do it”), Coke (“Coke is it”) and Audi (“Vorsprung durch Technik”) promoted their brands memorably.

It probably took their marketing teams days (perhaps even weeks) to develop these short, yet highly successful, slogans – an apparent paradox which was neatly summed up by American writer Mark Twain. He is quoted as saying, “If you want me to give you a two-hour presentation, I am ready today. If you want only a five-minute speech, it will take me two weeks to prepare.”

As for how long it took to translate (or “localise”) the three aforementioned advertising slogans phrases into a host of other languages in such a way as to achieve a similar effect across both cultures and continents, well that’s another story entirely (and the subject of a blog later this year)!

Twain wasn’t the first writer, by a long way, to identify the difficulty of being concise with words. In Shakespeare’s renowned tragedy Hamlet, Polonius declares:

“Therefore, since brevity is the soul of wit,
And tediousness the limbs and outward flourishes,
I will be brief.”

Even before that, Roman philosopher and statesman Marcus Tullius Cicero wrote: “If I had more time, I would have written a shorter letter.”

These three men understood the importance of being succinct.  Having spent the first 20 years of my professional life being paid by the volume of words I translated, it’s perhaps ironic that I now regularly advocate brevity. But I do.