Toilet spiders and short copy

Did you realize that medical students in New Orleans are drugging visitors and stealing their kidneys? Or that the toilets in a major U.S. airport are full of venomous spiders? Or that people don’t read anymore, so you need to keep copy as short as possible?

Looking for a common thread? It’s simple — all three are myths that have circulated so widely that many people accept them without question. Yet none of them is really true (at least I don’t believe organ larceny has become a problem in the French Quarter).

The simple fact is that people will take the time to read your copy – no matter the length – if it is meaningful to them and they believe it will offer value.

There’s no argument that people rely more heavily on visuals than they did in years past. The instant gratification offered by the Internet has conditioned us to absorb information faster and in smaller bites. But there’s still an appetite for more information, if it’s delivered effectively.

Don’t believe me? Convinced that people won’t take the time to read? Then you probably haven’t set foot in Barnes & Noble in recent months, looked at the number of titles in a magazine rack, or tried to find Grisham’s latest at your local library. “But that’s not the same thing!” you protest. “That’s reading for entertainment or to gain knowledge.”

Isn’t that what your ads, brochures, and other materials should do? Shouldn’t the reader enjoy them and learn from them? Shouldn’t they capture his or her complete attention and motivate the action you want?

So how long should your copy be? Exactly as long as it takes to do the job. Don’t fall prey to arbitrary (and absurd) rules about how many paragraphs there should be, or that each paragraph should have a set number of sentences.

Still afraid that nobody is going to read more than a paragraph or two? Some very simple steps can make your copy both readable and well-read:

Be organized. Organization is every bit as important as content. Well-organized copy is inherently more concise, because it doesn’t bounce all over the place.

Stay active. Active, economical language and simple sentence structure say more in less space.

Make it talky. If your copy is conversational, the reader will be able to hear it subconsciously, making your words even more compelling.

Cater to skimmers. Use paragraph headings and lead-ins to direct the reader to what she’ll find most interesting. Worried she won’t read the whole thing? Don’t be. As long as she finds what’s most meaningful to her, you’ve succeeded.

Boldface and underline judiciously. Read copy aloud, and raise your voice when you come to bold or underlined copy. If you sound like you’re ranting, there’s too much. Think of boldface and underlining as spices – a pinch here and there adds flavor, but cupfuls frustrate digestion.

If you know better than to fall for wild claims about kidney thieves and toilet spiders, you’re smart enough to look past bad advice on practical subjects. After all, nothing debunks a myth – even a convincing one – more effectively than common sense.