The art of brevity: shut the f*ck up and get to the point
In 1918, William Strunk Jr wrote The Elements of Style, one of the most influential writing books of all time. This is our favourite passage:
Vigorous writing is concise. A sentence should contain no unnecessary words, a paragraph no unnecessary sentences, for the same reason that a drawing should have no unnecessary lines and a machine no unnecessary parts. This requires not that the writer make all his sentences short, or that he avoid all detail and treat his subjects only in outline, but that every word tell.
That’s perhaps the greatest piece of writing advice ever. And it’s especially relevant today.
It’s a well-known fact that the Internet has shortened our attention spans. When someone lands on your website for the first time, you have mere seconds to capture his attention before he bounces. And if you do manage to hold his gaze, it will last a few minutes at best. Your copy cannot afford to waste time.
Trimming the fat
Read your website copy carefully, one word at a time. Ask yourself: does this word need to be there? Does it play a role in the sentence? Or is it just sitting around and taking up space?
Consider this sentence:
There are three reasons why you’ll love our latest product release.
And now consider this one:
You’ll love our new product for three reasons.
The first sentence has 67 characters; the second has 46. Yet they mean the same thing. There’s no extra information in the first sentence, only extra words. These are useless words.
Here’s another example:
By downloading the app, you’ll be able to discover a whole world of music and entertainment. (92 characters)
Download the app to discover a world of music and entertainment. (64 characters)
To write lean copy for your website, you must learn to trim the fat. Look at each sentence with a critical eye. Delete every word that’s not essential.
You’ll probably find that you can shave one-third off your character count simply by rewriting sentences and deleting useless words. Which could be the difference between needing 15 seconds to explain your product and only needing ten. On the web, that difference matters.
Brevity in action
To appreciate the power of concise writing, consider this real-world example. In 2016, Recreate was hiring freelance copywriters. We put out a job ad and got many emails in response. We’ve published two of those emails here. Read both, and see if you can guess which copywriter got the job.
The first email:
It’s not all that often you chance upon a job site and instantly find a position for which you tick all the boxes and then some. I read your advertisement and felt animated to make an instant application. Assuming the veracity of the job description, I am the perfect candidate for the role.
My name is XXXX. I am a twenty-four year old London School of Economics graduate who has been living in Berlin for three years now, where I have studiously accumulated skills across a multitude of ‘literary’ fields. My talents are spread primarily over writing (creative/technical/legal), content management, translation, copywriting and editorial work. This places me at an optimal intersection to begin freelancing at Recreate.
In my most recent job, I was heavily involved in a startup called XXXX. In this position, it was my responsibility to look after all of the content production, and both assemble and manage a team of writers underneath me. Entering the startup at a very early stage, it also lay upon me to define the ‘company voice’ and establish writing guidelines to nudge my writers towards more mindful self-editing. I also held a long-standing editorial role at XXXX, considered one of the most promising and novel digital companies to emerge out of Berlin. In this, I would painstakingly oversee all outgoing English text; proof-reading, cleaning up and often rewriting prose. Playing a key role in the company, I prompted several measures to optimise the editorial process for the most efficient content production and turnaround. Indeed, due to my sharp eye for detail, I have been sought after to overhaul the writing and copy for a number of websites and brochures throughout my time in Berlin. These can be provided upon request.
In closing, I am young, keen, sharp, diligent, and ready to throw myself professionally behind Recreate. The role I would assume at your company would lie at the intersection of various lines of experience I have attained over the past few years, upthrusted by my ardour for working with languages.
In support of my application I have provided a selection of writing samples. This is representative of my capacities as a writer across various styles and tones. I can also provide samples of my translation work.
I look forward to hearing from you!
And the second email:
I’m XXXX, a copywriter who’s been living and working in Berlin for a bit more than five years.
My work history includes branding, copywriting, journalism, and translation, conveniently touching all the bases mentioned in your job ad.
My personal website has plenty of writing samples — check it out here.
Perhaps we can meet for a coffee and discuss all this in more detail. What do you say?
You guessed right. The second guy got the job.
Looking for a native English copywriter? Recreate is a creative content agency based in Melbourne and Berlin. We help European companies tell stories in English.