How to make your writing short, sharp & shiny

The key to great content online is keeping it short. Conciseness in writing isn’t everybody’s strength, but this post gives you some guidelines on how to be brief without sacrificing your style.

Short sentences, short paragraphs

The most common thing I notice with my clients’ content is that many of them write very long sentences. In print, this is not normally a problem. On a screen, however, the longer a sentence becomes, the more difficult it is for your reader to stick with you.

Even though resources on the internet tend to conflict to some extent, there is a universal acceptance that shorter is better: short sentences, short paragraphs.

In an earlier post, I talked about the structure of online copy. The most important information needs to go first. Similarly, if what you have to say can’t fit into a simple, short paragraph, you need to think about how you are presenting it. If you have a paragraph that is more than four to six lines long, it starts to get hard on your readers’ eyes.

Ask yourself:

  • Does my writing have a lot of run-​on phrases?
  • How many ‘connecting words’ (and, but, as, because) do I have?
  • How many commas or semi-​colons do I have?
  • Can any phrases in parentheses (brackets) be eliminated?
  • Can any phrases be shaved back (have I used too many words)?

Punctuation is telling

Generally, any sentence that requires reasonably heavy use of punctuation is probably too long. Many people are comfortable with the use of parenthetical dashes — like this — but use of them extends your line length.

Never use two words when one will do

Perhaps the most important part of keeping things short is eliminating unnecessary words. Think very hard about what you are writing. I find that people often over-​use adverbs and adjectives. For example, ‘very best’ is fine; ‘absolute best’ is fine; ‘absolute very best’ is too much.

What this all boils down to is the golden rule of keeping it simple: never use two words where one would do.

Use social networks to hone your craft

Social networks like Twitter can help you learn to be concise. Twitter is the best example, although to a limited extent Facebook can help as well. The reason? Tweets and Facebook status updates only allow you limited space.

Twitter, in limiting you to 140 characters, forces you to say what you have to say in as short a space as possible. If you can say your piece in just 140 characters, then you almost have the art of ‘keeping it short’ down pat.

Keeping your written language concise will sometimes stretch your vocabulary. But once you have grasped the underlying principles of this style, your on-​screen writing will be more accessible, and all of your readers will thank you for it.

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