How long is long enough?

When it comes to the optimal length of copy for websites, emails, ads, letters, and brochures, it seems that every businessperson is an expert. The problem is that what most people view as expertise is actually just personal preference or learned prejudice.

The simple answer is that the correct amount of copy is exactly what it takes to accomplish the objective. Sometimes, that may be a sentence or two; other times, it may demand a book-length manuscript. Contrary to popular belief, length will not deter people from what you have to say, as long as they believe your words to be meaningful and worthy of their time.

It is true that typical copy lengths have been shrinking over the past generation. Compare today’s newspaper or magazine articles, product brochures, or ads with their counterparts from thirty years ago, and you’ll see that they tend to be significantly shorter. One reason is that our attention spans are shrinking, driven largely by television and the web. If you watch reruns of a groundbreaking “action” show from the early 1980s, you’ll probably find it to be slow and plodding compared to the likes of NCIS. That’s because our eyes and brains have become accustomed to seeing more images and movement in the same amount of time.

How we use the Internet has also driven the transition to shorter copy. In the early days of the web, most sites were copy-heavy “brochureware.” As broadband ushered in faster connections, we truly started to use browsers for browsing. Viewers were less likely to scroll down, so it became critical to place key information closer to the top of the page. There was even a spillover to printed materials, in that most people stopped reading word-for-word and began to scan quickly across the page.

Handheld devices have intensified the trend. Now the key elements of a message have to be condensed so they fit on a screen that’s smaller than the palm of your hand. You may have had 150 to 200 words visible on the typical website, but you’ll be lucky to get 30 or 40 of them on a device.

Should I worry that professional writers are about to be rendered obsolete? Not at all. You see, lower word counts mean every word must count. There’s no room for waste or fluff, and making words work their hardest is where professional writers excel. However, anyone who writes can benefit from the tips that follow.

If you’re creating copy for a website, a blog post, or something else that will be viewed on a screen, make sure that your opening sentences contain the information that’s most important to your target audience. Don’t waste their time with lengthy introductions or sharing things they already know, like “ours is a very competitive industry, and product users need to make the choices that best suit their needs.” Get to the point!

You may have more that you want to say, so post it on your site and give the viewers who will want to see more an easy way to access it. That way, the skimmers who simply want a quick once-over won’t be forced to wade through pounds of material that isn’t important to them.

If you’re developing printed pieces such as brochures or white papers, remember that nobody is going to read every word. Instead, cater to the skimmers by breaking large subjects into smaller chunks. Use subheadings, lead-ins, shorter paragraphs, and other techniques to guide skimmers through the document, so they can quickly find what matters most to them. Don’t be offended if they read less of what you’ve developed, because the portions they do read will be more relevant to their needs.

Finally, if you’re planning to tweet, don’t assume that you need to use all of Twitter’s 140-character limit. If you can convey your key message in just 80 or 90 characters, that’s wonderful, and it’s a sign that you’re an effective communicator. Padding your tweet to get closer to 140 characters will actually make it less effective.

Don’t waste words or the reader’s time trying to satisfy misguided ideas of how long or short copy should be. Just make sure everything you write is exactly long enough to accomplish the objective. You see, that’s the perfect length.