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6 Exercises to Help You Write Concise Copy

French Circus Poodle

If you’ve been with me for a while then you know the emphasis I place on the art of writing concise copy. In that particular post I taught you how to edit an article for brevity. In other words, I made the practice part of the workflow.

Now, I want you to step off the playing field and onto the practice field. We know the secret to going from good to great involves feedback … but it also involves deliberate, purposeful practice.

That’s what these six exercises are all about. Deliberate, purposeful practice.

1. Describe a broad or complicated subject in 100 words or less.

Think quantum mechanics. History of Western civilization. Choose a subject you love. One you know well. Could be a current event with lots of twists and turns. If you are at a loss for topics, search the front page of Wikipedia.

Once you’ve described the subject in 100 words or less, shoot for 50 words. Then 10 words. Find a new topic, and repeat.

2. Write a 100-word article using ONLY monosyllabic words.

You know … monosyllabic … words created out of just one syllable. Like bone, two, fierce, lie, spade, blow, hill, brain, dark.

Think this will be easy? It won’t. I have to use twelve words (and one polysyllable word) to describe table (two syllables): “Flat surface with four legs made out of wood, metal, or glass.” Can you describe it with fewer than thirteen? You’ll probably need a thesaurus for this one.

3. Write a 100-word article ONLY using active verbs.

Subject does the action is always faster and more descriptive than an object having something done to it. “Dorothy yelled at the waiter.” “The rhino gored the pumpkin.” “The twister devastated Joplin.”

4. Write a 100-word article ONLY using simple sentences.

Take the same exercise in number one, but try to limit your sentences to no more than four words. Short and snappy will be the sound you hear when you read aloud the article.

5. Describe a topic in a sonnet.

This is a variation on number one where you try to explain a complex or broad subject within the framework of a sonnet. You don’t have to rhyme or get the perfect iambic pentameter for each line, just get your story into fourteen sentences of ten syllables each. This will teach you how to write in boundaries as well as teach you a little about poetry and help you pick up a style.

6. Describe a topic or idea using the PAS formula.

The PAS formula stands for Pain-Agitate-Solve … and the idea is to limit your idea to only two sentences per element so it looks like this:

Insecure? Don’t worry, you’re not alone. However, stay that way and you’ll never accomplish anything of significance. Fortunately, there’s a book called Insecure No More, which will teach you how to be confident and courageous in just 30 days. Buy it now.

There was a period in my career when I had to write hundreds of succinct product descriptions. Without this formula I would’ve struggled.

Your Turn

Consider tackling just one exercise a day. And when you are finished, feel free to share you exercises in the comments below. I’d be happy to comment on them.

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Image source: Cocoterie

Comments

  1. “Flat surface with four legs usually made out of wood, metal, or glass.” Can you describe it with fewer than thirteen?

    “Board with four legs, made from wood, metal, glass, or plastic.” (11)

    All one sound words, no books helped ;-)

  2. Tori Winslow says:

    Funny that you would write this post now. I’ve just been recently working on company descriptions of 100 words or less. What’s more is the client also has certain requirements about what needs to be said. So it’s a double whammy!

    I liked what you said about P-A-S formulas. I knew the basic idea in my head, but I never realized it as a simple formulaic process. Very insightful! And totally a no-brainier!

    Good tips, thanks :)

    • I think the PAS is a pretty intuitive formula … meaning people who have lots of empathy will identify with someone’s pain and then try to solve it. The formula just adds the middle part … agitate. Heightens that pain.

  3. Hi Demian, Have been reading you for awhile on CB and finally looked for your home base and signed up–these are great writing exercises!

    Table: a plane on which to place things. (thinking utilitarian, like if you’re camping, isn’t a big flat rock a table?)

    Also tried #1: American history (26 words): People moved to new territory. Killed natives and procreated. Got tired of BS from original country. Had a war and won. Proclaimed selves a new nation.

    I originally had almost 100 words with a serious sort of slant and then said wait a minute. It’s simpler than that! I was also thinking it would take some serious reworking to describe it to an alien, someone who just arrived from another planet and didn’t know what “England” is or a “colony.”

    I’ve learned that if I don’t limit myself, I’m likely to ramble off into 3000 words or something when I only want 800–it’s my biggest challenge, so I’m constantly working on it. That’s why I like this exercise. Thanks!

    • Good to have you over here. Hope I can supplement what you learn at CB. This really is an extension of CB since they can’t publish everything I write.

      Great job on the exercises. Not easy. And love your American history rewrite. I do think you need to be more specific because except for “killed natives and procreated” your story isn’t unique to American history (heck, the killed natives, procreated may not be unique). Being specific would add teeth to it. Does that make sense?

      • I think I’ll learn plenty hanging out here!

        Thanks much. Yes, it makes sense. I was being a bit silly, and yeah, “Killed natives and procreated” is a common theme that could describe a lot of situations.

        I think if I wanted to get US history down to something extraordinarily short, I’d have to start with something fairly solid that includes all the basics, and then chip away at it and condense. I think this would be a fairly good start (71 words):

        Adventurers, opportunists, and persecuted people sought refuge and wealth in the newly discovered territory called America. Rapid colonization ensued, and two centuries of struggle produced a common cultural identity. Thirteen colonies formed under British rule, but the developing nation soon longed for self-governance. After years of increasingly hostile clashes between the colonies and England, a violent revolution commenced, and eight years of bloody battles engendered the United States of America.

        I’ll work on it and the others! Thanks.

  4. “A flat wood, ore or glass top on four legs.”
    Think sur-face and met-al are two syllables.

  5. Oops, forgot the thank you for the ideas to improve writing skills. I like reading your blogs.

  6. Putting my thinking cap on as we speak. I can actually see myself doing these exercises. Now, all I have to do, is make these visions come true. Thanks for offering feedback. This is just what I need at the moment. So, will be back.

    Cheers!

  7. Demian-

    Fantastic words.
    Useful, easy and simple.
    Will apply tonight.

    One of my tricks I Haiku. It’s a great way to write concise. I don’t let the rules about natures or contrast get in the way, just the 5-7-5 rhythm. It really focuses the mind.

    Copybot oozes
    Wit, charm, advice, humoring
    Thanks for all wise words

    Jarie

  8. Well, here goes … a sonnet about struggling to write:

    Oh, words that will not come, (Or just
    refuse to show themselves), What gives?
    When, out of my mouth, all the words of
    English come, and some of French and

    German too. Shadenfreude! N’est pas?
    Why, when I sit down to write, do words
    refuse to come? Is it me? Am I too crude
    to shape your letters, Words? Say,

    If I had gifts of words to bring this gathering
    of bards, I’d make mine bold, and italic,
    and stick a bracket (or two) in here or there.
    And, when they weren’t looking, I’d press the

    “Caps” key down and say: “Take that, you
    blighters!” , if only the words would come.

  9. Hello, I got the table one down to 16 words after a little bit of effort :-)

    The top is flat, with three legs or more. You put things on top of it.

    What do you think?
    P.S. Some great excercises for writing on this page, I am working through them later today!

  10. 7 words, no polysyllables:

    Like a big chair with no back.

    :-)

  11. Love the sonnet idea. I took a poetry class in grad school, and while it didn’t turn me into a poet, it certainly made me more aware of my words. I’d totally forgotten, though, what a good practice it is to force your words to shape to a form.

    I’ll be recommending this post in the writing group I run, too. :)

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