|Is Brevity the Soul of Wit? Or Witless for the Sake of Brevity?
By: David Soyka
I used to write email copy, which is junk mail without the paper. (Don’t hate me for stuffing your spam folder; it’s a dirty job, but someone’s got to do it.) My creative director usually had one standard response to just about any draft I submitted: “Good, but make it shorter.”
This is the axiomatic principle of writing emails. Nobody has the attention span. Nobody wants to scroll through lengthy discussion. The twittering masses are in 140-character mode. Who has time to read more than a sentence or two when you’re trying to keep up with all those Facebook updates?
It seems commonsensical (oh, and one of the other rules was to avoid multi-syllabled words, like “commonsensical” and “multi-syllabled”), but the problem with conventional wisdom is that it is so, well, conventional. If writing short was the sole criterion of successful advertising, then every marketing email you’d get (besides the ones asking to send money to Nigerian bank account) would read: “Buy this. Now.”
Once, in a fit of pique after my copy for one email campaign was eviscerated as too wordy, I submitted this line to my CD. The edit I got back was: “Buy
this. Now.” She was kidding. I think.
However, if you’re still reading this, then that would already give lie to the conventional wisdom that people don’t have the patience to read. Now, admittedly, fans of Marcel Proust might argue that a single screen of five or six paragraphs is hardly tough sledding. Then again, in comparison to a tweet, it might be a magnitude of effort akin to A Remembrance of Things Past.
Keep in mind that the 140-character model is a technical limitation, not any keen psychological insight into human attentiveness or reading preferences. And while Marcel wasn’t trying to sell you money market funds or inkjet cartridges, he was trying to tell a story. And people love to be told stories.
Isn’t that what good advertising does? It tells a story that gets people interested in a product. Whether it’s a financial product or soap or the latest high-tech gizmo, it hooks readers with a good headline, followed by an interesting storyline, maybe interesting enough for them to want to be part of that story.
Sure, you have to deal with space limitations. That was true in print and broadcast long before Gmail came along. But there’s a difference between being wordy and effective wording. Just cutting words for the sake of some notion that fewer words are better, without regard to storytelling, is not effective messaging. It’s just cutting.
That’s today’s short story.
David Soyka is freelance copywriter who has conceptualized and developed a range of strategic advertising, marketing, training, and technical communications for advertising agencies and Fortune 1000 companies in print, web, and broadcast formats. A former newspaper reporter and English teacher, he is a published author of ficiton and non-fiction, and a DJ at WTJU-FM. Find him online here.
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