Write just enough

Monday, 7 Oct 2013

Elliot Nash:

v1 The less words you use to tell a story, the more effective its message will be, and a greater number of people will read it to completion. Anyone who cares about the user experience in regards to their software, will tell you “people don’t read.” Which while being somewhat accurate, really isn’t the case. People do read, they just value their time. That is just as important in blogging. Protect your reader’s time, and deliver the message as quickly as possible.

v2 Many designers will say users don’t read text, and therefore, you should have as little copy as possible. This is a lie. Users do read text. Users protect one thing above all: their time. The more text they have to read, the more time of theirs is lost. Protect their time by delivering strong messages with fewer words.

v3 Reading takes time. The less reading you force someone to do, the more time you save them.

v4 Fewer words create a more powerful message.

(Excuse the full-quote – I will refer to different parts repeatedly, so I thought it necessary.)

This is a perfect illustration of the effect that twitterization has on ideas: all nuance and tangent is brutally sawed off until only platitude survives into writing. Elliot’s v4 is so vacuous as to not be worth saying at all. Still, it is an improvement on v3 – because though longer, v3 somehow manages to be even worse. V1 may be unnecessarily long, but among these it is the only one worth writing, because the only one worth reading, because the only one containing an idea. Even in v2, the idea is already watered down: the writing is clumsier and more redundant than in v1, in spite of the reduction in length.

But all of my criticism so far is too myopic. Step back and you’ll notice the real blunder: Elliot missed his own point! He went for brevity above all else, and his message suffered for it. People do read, he asserted – they just value their time… which v4 is a waste of. Presumably the grim takeaway so far is that if you aren’t sure which parts of your writing can be removed and which need keeping, maybe you should go ahead and remove all of it…

Fine, that was the wrong direction. What might be a better one? How do you nudge the text toward conveying ideas? I admit that because I find the arguments here somewhat ill-matched (not in any way that can’t be fixed, mind you – just not without going into the matter at greater length), I am having some difficulty rewriting the text without altering the message. But if I restrain myself to just run with what’s there for the sake of this exercise, I arrive at something like this:

v2 Waste no words in telling a story and it will be effective and hold more readers’ attention long enough to read it all. Designers will often say users don’t read; in fact they just value their time. This is true in blogging too – because it is true everywhere. Don’t waffle.

And that is where I’d stop.

Purely in terms of metrics, this is notably shorter than Elliot’s v2. But (I believe) it also manages to retain all the ideas from v1 in spite of its brevity. Of course it isn’t (nor can be) anywhere near as short as v3 or v4. But is it more powerful? (V4’s own words!)

You decide.

Oh, and if Elliot really wanted to be serious about it?

v5 Short is powerful.