How Great Writing Can Make a Small Space Sing


pen in empty journal

This post originally appeared on Scripted’s blog

Back in school, it was always the longer papers that scared me the most. “How am I going to write a twenty-page paper? Who can fill that much space?” I still feel that way, to be honest, but a new enemy has reared its head. One that’s just as insidious as the long write (if not more so). It’s 140 characters, or it’s ten words, or it’s a 300×200 box.

Writing with brevity is extremely hard, and much of the most important writing that we do as marketers has to be short and sweet. Things like email subject lines, CTAs, banner ads, and tweets. They’re some of the most visible signs of your brand, and they have to be great – otherwise, people are unlikely to investigate you any further. And you don’t have a lot of room to play with.

The pitfalls of short writing

There’s not much more disheartening than finishing a headline that you truly love, then checking the word count only to find that you’re over the limit by two characters. Fitting everything you want to say into a small space is extremely difficult, and it’s easy to leave things out either intentionally or by accident. And that’s exactly the problem most writers run into when they’re asked to write short.

It’s easy to think of five things that you “need” to say about your client. And there’s a definite place for that – in fact, there’s a lot of evidence that longer writing is better for search engine optimization, and that 1,200 words is the sweet spot for online content. But 1,200 words don’t fit in a tweet, and it’s extremely difficult to get all five of those important things into a tweet or an ad and have it not read like a convoluted mess. Word counts affect the stories that you can tell, and when you get to the point of even having character limits, it puts a lot of pressure on the writer to choose every word perfectly to tell the right story without running out of space.

That pressure only increases when you realize that much of the time, people aren’t even reading every single word you write. Eyetracking studies tell us this: one done on email newsletters showed that readers only spent about 51 seconds reading the newsletters in question, and only 19% fully read the newsletter. 35% of the time, they got skimmed or glanced at. Further, in generalheadlines are the first thing people look at, and usually only the first few words. On average, you have less than a second to grab someone’s attention. You’ve got to make it count.

How to make a few words amazing

There are steps that you can take to make sure that even when your writing is confined to a tiny area, it still does all the jobs you need it to do. Mostly, it all boils down to planning ahead, and writing with purpose. But here are a few specific tips that help.

Don’t try to fit everything in.

When you’re concepting for an ad, you’re probably going to have a lot that you want to say. Like I mentioned earlier, you know a lot about your clients and sometimes it can feel like you’re bursting at the seams with ideas and details that you want to make sure get included. But if you’re jamming too much into a small space, the end product will be confusing and cluttered. Your most important message won’t come through all the static.

So drop the static, and only share the most important message. You don’t have to say everything in every place – just enough to get them to click. Pick one thing and build around that. A more focused email or ad will bring the reader in and prompt them to investigate and experience more of what you have to offer. You don’t have to give it all to them at once.

Be bold.

People online are impatient. They’ll abandon a website for loading longer than a second, so you’d better believe they’ll abandon writing that doesn’t get to the point. That’s even more critical when you’re working within a strict word or character count. The most important thing when you have limited time (or space) to engage a reader is to grab them immediately to build interest. You can’t build to a crescendo. You have to start at the crescendo and blast away from the get-go. A bold idea and bold language allow you to do that.

Build a concept that will grab and keep your audience’s attention. Use interruptive language, and go from the throat from word one. When you’re writing, start out a little on the crazy side if you want. You can always pull your finished product back from the edge if you need to, but it’s a lot harder to take a safe idea and make it bolder.

Remember your goal.

Again, everything that you write about a certain client doesn’t have to tell their whole story. If you’re selling a specific product, you don’t have to explain the history of the business. You don’t have to outline their whole range of offerings. Embrace your concept. Stay on message, and don’t drift. Keeping your eyes on the prize will make it a lot easier to actually get the prize.

Challenge accepted

A twenty-page proposal or a long white paper can seem daunting when you first start out, but long-form writing gives you space to roam and explore, and room to breathe. Tweets, email subject lines, meta descriptions and other extremely short-form writing presents a wholly different and more troublesome challenge. With focus, though, and a strong concept, you can cut through the noise and make your shortest – and most important – writing some of your best writing.

Thomas wears a few hats—writer, editor, and European soccer expert—but his passion is content creation. When he's not crafting thoughtful content, he's coaching high school running, watching the Mets, or talking up Indianapolis to anyone who will listen.

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