How minimalism made me a decent copywriter

Francesca Catanuso
May 13, 2019 · 6 min read

And the work it takes to make things simple

When more is too much.

A full length mink coat in duck egg blue draped on a disco chaise. An eggplant-shaped porcelain pitcher full of silk flowers. Antique millefiori paperweights that sit atop a sterling tray, atop a lace doily atop a gilded table.

I grew up engulfed in a hoard of beautiful things belonging to my Nonna and Amu. Wrought with despair over the loss of her husband, my maternal grandma, Nonna, spent every penny of her inheritance buying comfort in luxury. Amu, my paternal uncle, is Persian. For those of you who need more context, he had a full length mink (in white) and loves all that sparkles. Absolute magpies.

This is Nonna’s bedroom. How do you know where to look when so much is going on?

Through unforeseen circumstances, we ended up living with and quite literally in an accumulation of beautiful belongings belonging to someone else. I’d go on to spend much of my young adult life donating and selling whatever I could, keeping only what was functional. The porcelain vegetable pitchers had to go.

I haven’t lived in my parent’s house for 15 years now, but the behavior of constantly auditing physical and mental things still endures. Now that I craft words for a living, I can’t help but see the overlaps in my life and wordsmithery. How do you know what to look at when so much is going on?

The boiling down of meaning to its essence helps people quickly understand what you’re trying to say. But — and there’s a big but — there’s definitely a sweet spot between saying too much and not enough.

Here’s how minimalism made me a decent copywriter.

“It takes hard work to make something simple”

Steve Jobs’ love for simple things sparked a design revolution. After dropping out of college, he took a calligraphy course and learned about serif and sans serif typefaces. It wouldn’t be until years later that he’d create Apple as the first computer with beautiful typography. It’s not just about the uncluttered look and feel of Apple; that’s too two dimensional. Its success is the result of deep simplicity derived from knowing the core of their products, the complexities of their engineering and the function of every component.

I try to have a deep technical and commercial understanding when writing for products. It’s important to put in the work, ask lots of questions, get to the crux of the problem you’re solving, then write.

“I love mess”

If you’ve read “The Magic Art of Tidying” or have seen Marie Kondo’s Netflix special, your socks and underpants are probably standing upright in your drawer, like little soldiers. Marie Kondo is the world’s answer to lifestyle minimalism, stripping back your home and personal belongings to keep only that which sparks joy. The lasting impact? Everything you surround yourself with makes you feel, look and be a better person. Why? Because in sorting through your proverbial mess, you keep only that which is essential. Kondo is doing with stuff what Jobs has done with design — creating simplicity from deep distillation.

As a copywriter, this is about auditing. Editing. Collecting rounds of feedback. Deleting. More editing. It’s about writing and tidying up your ‘mess’.

“Give a f*ck”

While searching for books in Google’s Goodreads app, you might notice an awful lot of literature related to giving more, fewer, or no f*cks. Sarah Knight’s book “The Life Changing Magic of not Giving a F*ck” is one of many that talks about the mental clutter that exists as a result of implicit and explicit obligations we feel towards everyone and everything. By simply tuning out junk, you can focus on what’s really important and live a more simple, and therefore better, life. This is actually just knowing your own personal value prop and sticking to it.

If a product team doesn’t have a vision or a value proposition, this is where I start. It is so incredibly beneficial for everyone on your product team, especially the copywriter, to understand what the goals, pains and gains of your user and product are. When you can clearly articulate a common goal, this is when you know where to focus your time and attention.

Miller’s Law

Hundreds of experiments outside our own industry have proven that there are strict limitations on memory and processing. Miller’s Law states that at most, humans can retain around seven bits of information in their brain, plus or minus a few. Think about that for a second. How many words do we shove above the fold, in an onboarding module or in a tooltip? More than seven, y’all.

When writing, cognitive overload is always top of mind for me. This happens when users are given too much information or too many tasks resulting in the inability to process anything. How will people know what to do if you give them too many choices?

This is Amu’s furniture in my parent’s house. This room seats 30. Where would you like to sit?

What we did

My experience has told me that if it takes more than 10 words to explain the main goal of an interaction, it will take you, as the writer, 100. Let’s say your product manager says “We want people to come here and learn what they can do on their own by providing examples and self manage so they don’t call our customer service agents.”

Sorry, mate. What?

This mobile example was Nonna’s metaphorical bedroom. After spending a lot of time reworking the content and A/B testing to no avail, we decided to test the overall value of the content by simply removing it. You read that right. We just removed it all together. When we saw no impact on taps in the menu, self service usage or customer service contacts after removing the subheaders, we sent them to the proverbial Oxfam in the sky.

By removing the subheaders, we made the calls to action super clear.

Sadly, it’s not as simple as just removing stuff and hoping for the best.

There was ample qualitative data to suggest that people scan our property descriptions (at best) and to fully understand their value, we tested removing chunks of this content. We quickly understood that it was creating a broken experience as customers began communicated through other channels that they were missing key information. We also saw other elements on the property page like the map, facilities, policies and fine print be accessed exponentially more.

People like a long description even though they don’t read it!

The conclusion was that even though people don’t read the content, having a (long) description gave people the reassurance that the property was legit and that if they wanted, they *could* reference the millefiori paperweights and lace doily should they choose to do so.

A final thought

I’m not aiming at a revolution here. There’s a delicate balance between providing too much and too little information to our users. This is why hiring copywriters with the right amount of strategic, collaborative spirit is critical to the success of our role within the business.

It’s important to put in the work and really understand the core principles of your product from both a technical and commercial perspective. Only then can you understand how to create simplicity from deep distillation. Don’t be afraid to edit. Multiple times. And delete a lot of stuff. This whole process is easier when your product has a value proposition and when you know what users are trying to do. Lastly, think about cognition overload. How many things are you making someone process? Did you build a proverbial millefiori paperweight?

Using combinations of UX components like transparent words and intuitive visual cues are the stuff of great product development. Just make sure it’s there for a reason, and sparks joy.

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