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The Art of Writing Concise Copy

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In my very first Copyblogger blog post I wrote that web users were “mission minded, cramped for attention, bent on standards, and uninterested in learning new navigation methods.”

In other words, give it to them, and give it to them fast. They aren’t window shopping.

No. They are on a hunt. And simply obeying the unbreakable law of the web.

Like gravity pulls objects to the earth, the web pulls people across the landscape of connected information–whizzing by landmarks (content) at break-neck speed.

Thus, when people arrive at your blog they should be able to size up your content in an instant. From the headline down the subheads to the call to action. In other words, what’s in it for them? And is it worth their time?

It should be clear. And it should be concise.

First, Write Yourself Silly

I’ve got a habit of writing long content. But even in that capacity I try to be concise. However, if you can say in 200 words what you said in 1,000–by all means, do so (if you have the time–see below).

This is where you make your money.

Your first step is to do tons of research, take notes (on paper and in Evernote). Consolidate all those notes on a white board, and then let it sit for a day.

When it’s time to write your rough draft sit down in front of that white board and start writing. With the first draft the goal is to get everything down on paper. Use the notes on the white board to jog your memory and make sure you are covering all of your bases.

And keep your bottom in the seat until you’re done.

How to Edit Web Copy

When it comes to editing–you want to be ruthless. Go through the document dozens of times. Naturally you start at the top and rewrite. Work your way down.

  • Eliminate petty sentences, use active verbs and get to the point.
  • Cut your introduction and jump right into the meat of the story.
  • Eliminate sections that are irrelevant (often impossible unless you leave your copy for a day or two).
  • Use simple words, short sentences and small paragraphs.

If you get stuck on a particular part, jump to another section and edit from there.

Eventually you’ll connect all the sections with transition sentences so that you can read through the entire document without making substantial changes.

At that point you might move a paragraph here or a sentence there, but for the most part you are making small changes (like finding a better word than improves) that benefits the flow of the document or refines the originality of your content.

When Do You Abandon the Editing Process?

Simple. When you run out of time. Nothing magical about a deadline. It just is.

However, if you don’t have a deadline (or it’s an internal one you can break), you should abandon copy when you can read through the entire document without any major flags popping up.

Then read it a few more times. Next,  proof it for spelling and grammar mistakes. Finally, publish.

If you hold onto it any longer than that then you are guilty of perfectionism. Don’t be guilty of perfectionism. Please ship.

Do you have an editing process? What does it look like?

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See also in this series:

Comments

  1. I like the process most when I’m writing a post I know won’t publish for a week or more. Right now, I’m only committed to a Tuesday blog post and when i can be a week or two out with a post already scheduled, I write better, edit better, and have the time to be more objective about the message. It’s when I’m writing the day of, or the day before that I get sloppy. I still do it, but it’s never my best plan.

    Not to sound trite, but more time is good… until, of course, more time is bad.
    I’m not sure I’ve figured out the best editing process, but I ship. And every time I ship, it’s hopefully better than the last or at least exercising something that will improve my writing over time.

    • That’s the goal, Justin: to get better than last time. And we can’t do that if we aren’t providing something for people to critique. Without feedback we are shooting in the dark. So we have to ship. Early and often.

  2. Web users are “mission minded, cramped for attention, bent on standards, and uninterested in learning new navigation methods.” So true. Thanks for the reminder!

    I think it was Krug who compared web pages with billboards along the highway. You don’t have much time to make an impression and get people to read on.

    • Henneke, indeed, it was Krug. I mention that in the unbreakable blog post and that original post on Copyblogger. One of the best metaphors for web usage (that and Jakob Neilson’s “foraging” metaphor).

  3. Self-editing is problematic because it’s very hard to see our own words dispassionately. It’s like seeing our own children as others see them, which is impossible. But your suggestion to let the words sit for a while is excellent. Sometimes I am amazed at the simple edits that are so obvious when I let some time go by before posting. Unfortunately, we don’t have the same luxury with comments!

    • True, but it wouldn’t be the same if we let our comments sit for a day. :D I like the immediacy of online conversation…however, I’ve been known to write a comment, delete it and back away and think about it for awhile then return latter in the day to publish comment. Whether it’s better–that’s debatable.

  4. Thanks, Demian! So easy to edit endlessly until your eyes hemorrhage. Good to know when to stop.

    I also like the- “And keep your bottom in the seat until you’re done.” part when writing the rough draft. I’ve also found that it’s essential to not allow for interruption during this phase of the process.

    • Even with the editing process it’s helpful to keep your bottom in the seat…at least your first two or three passes. This keeps the continuity in your head–helps you content the larger ideas. After that you can piecemeal it with distractions.

  5. It takes a lot of pressure off my shoulders when I tell myself ”I’m just writing a draft, I’ll edit after”. It gets the creative juice flow better. And often times, I find that I don’t have to edit that much (or less than I first thought I would).

    I may try evernote, but for now I simply use google docs to save my notes and the stuff I find during research.

    • I enjoy Evernote, but I use Google Docs, too. I’ve been using Evernote because the phone app allows me to edit, but the G Docs didn’t. I think that’s changed, but I’m a creature of habit.

  6. with practice experience comes also

  7. Get it on the paper is the best advice. Leave your inner critic on the bench until it’s her turn to bat. :)

    Dear Demian…this is where I come when I need inspiration. :)

    Thank you:)

  8. Save the blogosphere with this post you might, Demian :)

    Speaking of copy, what opt-in copy do you think (or know) works best, in terms of phrases like “learn more, discover more, get more info here, read more, find out more” etc. etc…?

    • That’s a great question. I think all of those are test worthy. Here’s what I know from experience:

      – I would lean toward active, specific verbs like “learn,” “read” or “discover” over “get”
      – Discover is supposed to be a super word in the sense that it’s supposed to be one of the most persuasive words around.

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  10. Coincidentally, there’s a typo here. “Go through the document dozens of time.”

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