Web Writing Part 3: Cut the extra words, less really is more
Where writing for eMedia is concerned, less really is more
Documents destined for computer screens follow a slightly different set of rules than those written for print.
- The traditional 10-20 words per sentence is out the window.
- According to Jacob Nielsen, you should cut ‘traditional’ text by at least 50% when writing for the screen.
- Cutting overall length by half makes your writing easier to scan.
- Commas don’t cost extra, and periods are encouraged.
- Short sentences, of seven to ten words, are ideal.
- Your readers will thank you for taking pains to do the absolute least you can do.
Write long to start – trim it later.
If you know something can’t be more than 200 words, write 300, and then cut it to 175.
Now you can decide whether to “flesh it out,” or leave it short. If you can’t cut it, try breaking it into chunks.
If that’s impossible, arrange the item so users can print it. Adobe Acrobat is a “standard” for distributing print documents over the Internet.
Keep sentences simple
Complex sentences like this one, with its introductory subordinate clause and parenthetical prepositional phrase, are going to be troublesome.
Better to write: Complex compound sentences are hard to read.
Use short paragraphs
A long paragraph, easily navigable on paper, is hopeless on screen. Your readers are scanners and a paragraph of more than four or five lines invites them to skip past it.
While you should always attempt to use paragraph spacing according to the rule, (keeping related items together) feel free to add a break whenever a text block gets uncomfortably long.
Take this intimidating mind bender …
Our concurrent master plan can no longer support a true creative regional methodology. It does, however, lend credence to pending commercial divisions. Our hypothesis, however, is that a theoretical trial carry over can only result in a proven area-wide opportunity.
Many (most) people will look at that block of words and their brain will just shut down. It just looks like way too much to read.
By breaking text into paragraphs or blocks you increase the chances of it being read.
Our concurrent master plan can no longer support a true creative regional methodology.
It does, however, lend credence to pending commercial divisions.
Our hypothesis, however, is that a theoretical trial carry over can only result in a proven area-wide opportunity.
(It’s still gibberish, but at least now you know it is!)
Most paragraphs will have to stand alone as chunks.
Cut all transitional phrases from beginnings and endings, such as …
“Another point to consider”
“As we shall see in a moment” Wherever possible, lay the foundation first.
“In addition …”
Breaking simple paragraphs into bullet lists often increases readability.
- Bullet lists may not cut actual length, but they permit faster reading.
- A bulleted list of independent clauses should use Initial Capital Letters.
- A list of words or phrases should not.
Please don’t use words just to be using words.
(even if you get paid that way … especially if you get paid that way!)
Bad: “You’ll make the acquaintance of the masters behind such impressive structures as the Channel Tunnel, The Chesapeake Bay Bridge and a host of others.”
Better: “You’ll meet the masters behind the Channel Tunnel, The Chesapeake Bay Bridge and other impressive structures.”
Bad: “In order for you to assure that your text will always be easily readable, you should always endeavor to make all of your sentences as short and as concise as possible, eliminating all of the unnecessarily long words, the repetitions and the redundancies.”
Better: “Shorter words and sentences are easier to read on-screen.”
Brutal: “Short words and sentences are easier to read.”
(8 Words and we shot ourselves a hyphen in the process.)
Short Enough: “Keep it Short!”
From 40 words to three. If the shorter version successfully communicates your message, keep it. If not, only add enough verbiage to do so.
Dead Phrases are Zombies – They Eat at The Reader’s Brain!
Dead phrases, redundancies and stating the obvious: an attack on your reader’s intellect.
A couple of common (but should be obvious) examples of dead phrases are: “It goes without saying” and “Needless to say.”
If it goes without saying, then why say it? The entire sentence should get zapped. If the sentence does need to stay, cut the useless phrases.
Starting a sentence with “Needless to say” is really saying, “I’m now going to waste your time by saying stuff that doesn’t need to be said.“
A close relative of the above demons is the marvelously contradictory “Before I get started…” paradox.
The act of writing or saying those very words means you’ve already started!
Likewise, don’t start a speech posting or document with the word ‘First.”
If the first word is ‘first’, it’s redundant!
“There” is a dead word, except as an antonym of “Here.”
Bad: There are three questions that you should ask yourself before eating a live frog.
Better: Ask yourself three questions before eating a live frog.
“There” can lurk in the middle of a sentence:
Bad: We’re sure that there will be a full analysis of the problem from our customer support staff.
Better: We expect a full analysis from customer support.
Another ‘gotcha’ word is “it.”
Unless it’s a pronoun with an antecedent in the previous sentence, “it” is a waste of time and valuable real estate at the start of a sentence. “It” also puts the important part of a sentence in a subordinate clause. This leads to more grammatical errors. Consider …
Bad: It is a pleasure to welcome you to our site. (10 words)
Better: Welcome to our site! (4 words)
Better Still: Welcome! (1 Word)
Can you overdo it, and “abridge too far?”
Yes you can!
If your readers can’t navigate, can’t grasp what you’re telling them, or receive sufficient content to respond, you should restore text only until your readers (and you) are once again comfortable.
Just In Case You Forgot…
In any communication, be it graphic, written or verbal, do it as if …
“You’re Sending a Telegram to a Moron
at a Thousand Dollars a Word!”
Part 1: The Prime Directive
Part 2: Close only counts in hand grenades and horseshoes.
Part 3: Cut the extra words, less really is more.
Part 4: Odds, Ends and Pet Peeves
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