Less of just the right detail is more engaging to readers. That works for magazine copy, Web copy, and even proposals.
But in my geeky love for technical prowess and quotable professionals, I once was guilty of being too, um, prolific.
I wrote my first cover story for a trade magazine with an amber-on-black Tandy Radio Shack word processor, aptly dubbed the TRaSh-80. My ambitious draft was 24 screens of helpful detail and quotable quotes. My editor (Bless you, Blake!) said, “Cut it down to eight.”
It was painful, but I did it. I continued to hatchet down my own and others’ articles for years. I made “proof pages” bloody with red ink.
In celebration of Halloween, here are my 12 tips for hatchet mastery:
- Inverted Pyramid. Don’t bury the lead. Get to the point. Start with the crucial conclusion you want readers to take away, and sequence supporting details in order of their importance or relevance to the target audience. Fairly quickly, you’ll be able to cut the chaff.
- Raise questions. Leave some things unanswered. You don’t have to answer them all right now. That’s for you to do later in dialog/commentary, or for your sponsors and advertisers to do as they build the relationship, or in a follow-up story.
- One-Time Only. In some circles, they teach you to tell ’em what you’re gonna tell ’em, then tell ’em, then tell ’em what you told ’em. That works in speech and academic print publishing, but it won’t work in magazines or Web content. Just pick the best way to say it once with your key words. Save the lesser gems to polish for a future article.
- Select the Best Example. If you’re teaching or training, it’s a good idea to provide multiple examples. It gives your audience mental hooks to connect with you and learn new knowledge. Save such elaboration for the classroom or Webinar. Pick one example that shows off expert credibility, newsworthy timeliness, a picturesque analogy, or the audience’s deep-seated pain.
- Trade up for a Picture Worth a Thousand Words. Sometimes when you want to describe a thing, a whole and its parts, a process with inputs/outputs, the flow of a procedure, or an abstract concept, it’s better to illustrate it, which provides visual interest editors and visitors love. If you or your artist design the figure, chart, or photo well enough, you don’t have to reiterate much in the copy. I like short highlights followed by, “as shown at right” or “as shown in the figure below” — or even no reference at all. If it’s shown nearby, they’ll get it.
- Replace Lengthy Transitions with Brief Bold Subheads. Breaking up long grey columns of text with subheads shows off your organization, and helps the reader scan for what they want to know.
- Change Passive to Active Voice. When you clearly identify the actor and use active verbs, you can avoid the foggy rigmarole of “The prize was awarded to him by the so-called committee” in favor of “He won the Nobel prize” — eliminating several words in the process!
- Shorten Sentences. Split up convoluted or compound sentences, simplifying statements to subject and verb when you can. Sometimes you can cut out “that” and “which” in subordinate clauses, as well as wordy correlative or subordinating conjunctions.
- Effusively Cut Adverbs and Fluffy Adjectives and strings of Prepositional Phrases. Do you really need to specify exactly where, when, how, why, which, and to what extent in every sentence? In some cases, that detail is superfluous or redundant.
- Bullet Lists. Sometimes you can get the point across with lists of things or short phrases instead of complete sentences.
- Fewer Syllables. “Utilize” is rarely better than good ol’ simple “use.” Try Thesaurus.com.
- Cut Articles Before Nouns. Unless you must specify which one, see how many instances of “a”, “an”, “the”, “some”, and so on you can eliminate. Switching to plural may help. You may be surprised how many nouns can stand alone.
These 12 Steps of Wordyholism drill down to your substance, whispering promises of more.
Rather than lull readers to inaction, keep it short and succinct (KISS). Inspire possibilities and questions…Prompt them to action, and increase dialog between you, your readers, and your sponsors.