Short is the New Long

 Helpful notes for Digital Content Creators

“Brevity is the soul of wit” … so wrote Shakespeare. Did he ever know, how true and applicable it will become almost 400 years later in the digital age! Today, short writing rules. In our time-starved culture, burdened with information overload, the need for the lean, simple, and direct messages is ever on the rise.

This is true for both non-fiction and fiction. We need more and more quick reads for problem-solving, solutions-offering articles. And the demand for short stories is getting stronger by the day. Emoticons, smileys and frowny faces appear to be more popular forms of expression than words, regardless of what we are expressing: love, hate, agreement or disagreement.

Social media, blogging and web site professionals estimate that 15 seconds is about what you have to grab and keep people’s attention; otherwise they will go somewhere else. Web readers don’t read, they skim. They read headlines and then look around if you’ve got anything interesting. If you haven’t, they are gone in seconds.

Web content must get to the point quickly, because users are mostly looking for specific information and actionable content; they don’t want to spend their time on content that is not in line with their current goals. Thus, website narrative needs to be less author driven and more user-driven.

Paper print calls for grammatically correct content and complete sentences; online, less so. Even fragments can let you make quick sense of what is being said, while your mind scans the ‘keywords’ in the text. This can help reduce word count. According to estimates, web users read an estimated 18% of content only. Therefore, cutting words is well worth the effort.

While reading on computer monitors readers rarely focus on a single article for more than a minute or two. That’s why the vast majority of what’s written for the Internet is under 1,000 words.  For online outlets longer articles are not cost effective anymore.

Okay, so how short is short?  Common sense dictates that length is relative. A three-hundred-word piece of writing may be short by most standards, but not for a tweet!

Advice from experts on How to Write Short

How to write short is less of a natural talent and more of an acquired skill. It can be learned.
Here are some helpful tips:

  • Keep a diary devoted to notes on short writing and for your own practice notes.
  • Keep a pen and your note book nearby while reading newspapers and   Think through the content and write down your thoughts.
  • While reading books, write your thoughts on the page margins. After you are finished, do a quick review of your marginal notes. Use your note book to summarize your arguments.
  • Practice short writing on small areas: Post-it notes, index cards
  • Practice the use of lists: they generate ‘white space’ in content, which is easy on eyes for readers while reading on PC or cell phone screens
  • Remember: the shorter the passage, the greater the value of each word appear to be.
  • Imagine it will be a short piece, before you even start writing. Think sonnet, not an epic poem.
  • You will run into great short writing in the most surprising places, from restaurant menus to rest room walls. Record these in your notebook or take a snap with your cell phone
  • Be alert to finding interesting short texts anywhere and everywhere:
    • fortune cookies, Valentine candy hearts, greeting cards
    • gravestones, monuments, tattoos
    • jokes, one-liners,
    • recipes, instructions
    • tweets, news bulletins, signage
    • notes, summaries, lists,
    • proverbs, quotations, aphorisms
    • graffiti, ads, bumper stickers, T-shirts,
    •  & A, social networks, speech balloons
    • Epitaphs in a cemetery!
    • Tattoos people have on their skin.
    • Humor rendered in short forms.

 

  • You can learn from Common Wisdom Statements:
    • Sayings like “America is a land of opportunity.”
    • Maxim: “It’s not the size that matters, but how you do it”
    • Adage: “Good things come in small packages.”
    • Saw: “You can’t take it with you.”
    • Motto: U.S. Marine Corps, “Always faithful”
    • Epigram: “a triumph of hope over experience.”
    • Proverb: “Slow and steady wins the race.”
    • Aphorism: “You must be the change you wish to see in the world”

 

  • Follow short writers: If you find a writer of great short work, follow the writer over time. If the writer has a website, a Facebook page or a Twitter account, request to join.
  • Keep notes of examples of great short writing collected from other sources.
  • Write short pieces of your own, inspired by writings of successful writers
  • Consider the lessons that you can draw from analyzing lyrics of songs. What brief expressions and language moves can you use in your own writing?
  • Notice how in music and lyrics, repetition is used to hold narrative and thematic elements together and make them memorable.
  • Make a resolve that you will refrain from dumping long texts on your readers. Always take a few minutes to correct and improve to write short and in more succinct way.
  • Successful authors agree that great writing comes from practicing deletion of extra words. Review your drafts before finalizing, with the intention to:
  1. Deleting words that mean little or nothing [e.g. kind of, really, become actually].
  2. Deleting words that repeat the meaning of other words [various and sundry].
  3. Deleting words implied by other words [no need to add terrible in “terrible tragedy”].
  4. Replacing a phrase with a word [e.g. in the event that becomes if]
  5. Changing negatives to affirmatives [e.g. not include becomes omit].
  • Include only what users want and need.
    • Cut! Cut! Cut! Find the essence of what you want to say
    • Put it away for a day or two. Look it over and cut again.
    • With each sentence, ask: Do users really want or need that?
    • Repeat: Do they really want or need that?

During the editing process, ask yourself, “How can I say the same thing in fewer words?”

  • Work from a ritual of reduction. Apply a 75 percent rule; that is, deliver the work in three-quarters of the expected length. If you are afraid that the 75 percent is too less, you can try reducing to 90 percent. Even that will be better than most writers!
  • Always review your writing to see if you can substitute a long word for a short one, or vice versa. Which feels better?
  • You can develop your ‘short writing muscles’ by practicing reading short, writing short, and talking short.
  • Read out aloud your report or story, to feel for the length. Don’t only guess how long it will take to read. Time your reading, then make decisions about how much content to keep and what to let go.

 

  • Practice writing excerpts. It is a powerful form of short writing. You can select relevant materials from others, as evidence for your own arguments. But make sure it does not violate the spirit of the original work.
  • Learn from Ads, especially the ones that have short texts and slogans.  Pay attention to the ads that work. Focus on words, visuals, music, and imagery as they operate individually and together.
  • Look at graphics for source of inspiration for short text, specially the captioned illustrations or photos.
  • Adding lists in your content can help create white space on the page. (Notice how lists have been used in this write up!)
  • Reports are good source of concise writing, specially the ‘executive summary’ portions that are given in the beginning of reports.
  • Notice the language used in Propaganda or advocacy statements —including slogans and other ways of summarizing. Keep notes in your diary for the examples found in radio talk shows, cable news commentary, or political ads.
  • Use of multimedia can help to shorten your text. Whereas this is not possible in paper publications, it is certainly a big advantage for the digital content. Instead of providing a long explanation in your own words, you can insert a link to another web page.  Or even better, embed a video directly in your content. It greatly helps to shorten your text.
  • There are numerous apps available that give you a word count and track your daily or weekly word count.

Finally, some advice from famous authors:

  • Strunk and White: “Omit needless words.”
  • Donald Murray’s: “Brevity comes from selection and not compression.”
  • Chip Scanlan: “Focus, focus, focus.”
  • Sir Arthur  Quiller-Couch:  “Murder  your  darlings”—that  is,  have  the  courage  to  cut those literary effects that you most like but that do not contribute to the focus”
  • Blaise Pascal: “you may need more time, not less, to write something good and short”