Monday, October 4, 2010

Say a Lot with a Little

A journalism school ran a contest for the most sensational headline: "need not feature actual events, but must be no more than three words long." The winner--two words and three syllables--was "Pope Elopes."

You can say a lot in amazingly few words, if they're the right words. Journalists and other periodical writers know this best. The typical feature article contains a few thousand words at most; a back-page article or op-ed may be no more than 500 words; anecdotal or "filler" articles may stop at 250. How does one tell a whole story, or explain the essential points of a subject, in five or ten short paragraphs? Often, by going through the manuscript six or seven times to prune it of every nonessential word.

Your Web site or sales letter may not be facing an "under 1,000 words or you don't get paid" dictate from an editor, but it will be facing hundreds of potential clients who are short on time and on attention spans. Many people run from the mere sight of a page of unbroken text. Here are a few professional-writing tricks for achieving readable-looking lengths:

Build up your vocabulary. Some writers pride themselves on learning a new word from the dictionary every day, or studying the thesaurus for fifteen minutes of each lunch hour. The more words you have stored in your brain, the less likely you are to waste fifteen words describing something because you don't know its name. Don't, however, show off and use words most of the public has never heard, or you'll be back to writing out the whole definition.

Consider syllable count as well as word count: 500 ten-letter words take up more space than 500 six-letter words. Most successful writers live by the rule "never use a five-syllable word where a two-syllable one will do."

Divide long paragraphs into short ones: white space makes the text look less daunting, and may be the deciding factor in whether people actually start reading a page.

Consider the sound of the words--and of the piece as a whole. To some extent, length is in the perception of the reader; J. K. Rowling got away with making the later Harry Potter books extra-long by sheer virtue of her storytelling ability. If your writing sounds monotonous or singsong, bored readers will find your 250-word piece twice as long as a more interesting 400-word piece. Use sentences of different lengths, cut the cliches, and save rhyme and alliteration for taglines!

Don't rush! One writer is said to have ended a ten-page letter with the apology, "Sorry this is so long, but I didn't have time to make it shorter." Experienced authors know that you never become practiced enough to get first drafts perfect; and the less time you leave between drafts, the more unneeded words and other imperfections you leave in the manuscript. Go ahead and write down everything you have to say about your product or news item; then, rather than sending the results immediately to the printer, go back and remove everything not vital to your central point. For really important materials, give yourself a minimum of two weeks to do three drafts.

And don't say you don't have time. The time you save your prospects will come back to you soon enough.

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