A short(ish) guide on how to write short copy

Did you know that, right now, there are models, actors and famous people flying all over the world with a cashmere wrap and scented candle?

But of course … because that’s what they tell us in various ‘I never travel without …’ articles.

Travellers fall into two categories: those with all sorts of unnecessary stuff and those who travel as light as air. Those two categorisations apply to writing copy too.

How to write short copy – tip 1
Work out exactly what you need 

Maybe it’s because I hate waiting for luggage to arrive at the carousel (or not) but I don’t see the need for excess baggage. Writing copy is like packing for holiday. Dump down all your thoughts and info on paper, just like you throw down everything you want to pack on the bed, and plan what’s really important.

Short Copy - Plan Ahead

Jakob Nielsen says page visitors only have time to read a quarter of the text on pages. Unless your writing is ‘extraordinarily clear and focussed, little of what you say will get through’. Less is more. Nielsen goes on to say that your value proposition must be communicated within 10 seconds or you’ll lose the reader’s attention.

Let’s take a quick look at how to arrive at that value proposition. Start by asking your client to fill in a creative brief (feel free to download my client briefing template). If they list more than one key benefit, don’t be afraid to challenge. Having only one point to catch is easier than trying to catch many; a single-minded benefit means a stronger piece of communication.

How to write short copy – tip 2
Prune away

Beware large hunks of content, especially online. They put readers off. Copy is more likely to be read and understood if in short paragraphs.

Time to start whittling away. What do you really, really need?

The legendary David Abbott used to write in columns to gauge word count.

He said, ‘Alongside the column I jot down thoughts or phrases that come to mind before I need them. They stay there in the sidings until there’s a place for them. I also write down in the margins all the clichés and purple bits that clutter my head. I find that only by writing them down do I exorcise them. If I simply try to forget them they keep coming back like spots on a teenage chin.’

When I revamped my website, I found it so, so hard to discard work I wanted to show and words I wanted to keep. (There you go – even that paragraph can be pruned to ‘When I revamped my site, it  was hard to discard work and words I liked.’)

Think of your writing like an upside down triangle, with the main point first then the next most important point etc, etc. Even if someone stops reading early on, at least they can take away what matters most.

Ask yourself what you want your reader know, feel and do. Then make sure your words are hitting those marks.

How to write short copy – tip 3
Prune again – HARDER!

Now go back again (the overnight test works wonders) and be firm. Striking through stuff with a red pen yet retaining sense is hard; losing unnecessary words yet retaining brand character can be harder.

But you can easily cut out unnecessary words such as ‘that’, ‘very’ and ‘really’ without losing any impact or meaning. The sentence will still make sense.

You can also simplify many phrases. For example:

Due to the fact that … Because

With regard to… About

Endeavour… Try

Additional … Extra

Per annum … A year

Ensure… Make sure

Enquire… Ask

Commence … Start

Whilst … While

Purchase … Buy

How to write short copy – tip 4
Axe the jargon

Jargon has as much impact as a marshmallow falling on a pavement. It not only sounds ridiculous but also unapproachably formal. Write as you would speak. David Abbott used to read his copy out loud to check the rhythm of the line and the flow of the piece.

How to write short copy – tip 5
Use the active voice, not the passive

The active voice is more confident, direct – and shorter to read. The passive, by contrast, is weaker.

Compare this:

Your email will be replied to in due course.

To this:

We’ll reply as soon as we can.

How to write short copy – tip 6
Don’t struggle – ask me instead

Which would you prefer: a wordy site worthy of a Ryanair excess baggage fee? Or an engaging, gossamer-light website or brochure by an experienced freelance copywriter? Don’t be weighed down – just get in touch or else read my blog with 10 Simple Tips For Writing Copy.


About the author: Caroline Gibson

Caroline profile pic

Caroline has been a freelance copywriter for over 15 years, with clients ranging from international brands to small businesses looking to become big businesses.
Before then, she worked for some of London’s leading ad, branding and design agencies. She has experience in every sector – from finance to health to drinks – and has won awards in every discipline.

This article was first published by Caroline Gibson