What’s the most important keystroke for writing great copy?
It might sound a silly question, but what’s the most important keystroke for writing high-impact technical product literature? Full stop? Comma? Caps lock? I think it’s none of these, and the answer tells you a lot about what makes a successful piece of copywriting.
Making your product literature easy to read
If you’re a marketing manager or a copywriter in the scientific business, then you’ll be familiar with the expectation that you’re there to produce text about your product or service.
But of all the keys on the keyboard, which is the most useful for making your copy easy to scan through and effortless to understand?
It’s not the full stop, comma, or (perish the thought) the caps lock. No – it is this:
More text is not better
The delete key, or backspace if you prefer. The ultimate tool against long-winded, lack-lustre text.
This is relevant to scientific business copywriting, because the complexity of many products and services seems to result in the belief that the more words that are used in brochures, websites and white papers, the better. Extensive background detail, long lists of product features, in-depth explanations, strings of superlatives, and so on.
In fact, if you’ve ever tried keeping your text short and to the point, you’ve probably been criticised for doing so: “That’s not detailed enough”, “We must include those features”, “What about so-and-so application?”, “There’s a bit of white space on that page – what can we fill it with?”.
The start of the process
Having been a scientific editor and copywriter for 15 years, I’m familiar with such sentiments. But when working with clients on an initial draft, I always take the time to explain why I’ve cut down a list of bullet points, trimmed a long explanation, or even deleted an entire section.
To put it simply, producing reams of text about your product or service is not a sign of good copywriting. In fact, quite the opposite.
For a start, it’s easy to write lots of text, especially on a complex topic where there’s lots to say. (I should point out, though, that this is not a necessarily a bad thing – for example, having a brain-dump of ideas is a great way of starting a copywriting project).
But the problem is that many people communicating technical topics consider the job done at that point, whereas in fact it is only the start of the process.
It’s easy to write lots of text, but that’s only the start of the process
Good writers will set their text to one side for a bit, and then come back to it, prepared to be ruthless. As novelist Stephen King said: “When your story is ready for a rewrite, cut it to the bone. Get rid of every ounce of excess fat.”
This is just as true for technical literature as for great literature… and especially in today’s media-saturated environment, which makes readers highly likely to skip over text that looks long and boring.
So unless you’re lucky enough to have a captive audience that is prepared to digest large swathes of prose, then you need to get to work on your rewrite. The aim is to make your text clear, crisp and concise. This isn’t easy… but it is necessary.
The key to good copywriting
This brings me back to the topic of this post – the delete key. This is the key that forces you to think about what you want to say, whether you’ve said it, and whether you’ve wasted the reader’s time with irrelevant information.
Using it requires:
- Confidence with words – You have to be adept at identifying what could be simplified, moved or deleted. Are there any phrases that aren’t adding any meaning? Can any supplementary points be dispensed with? Have you made something simple sound complicated?
- Discipline – You have to be dispassionate about your text. No-one likes waving goodbye to carefully crafted phrases that took time to write. But you’re doing it for the reader’s benefit, and that’s better in the long run.
Developing these skills takes time and practice, but it’s worth it. If you can take a rough draft and reduce the word count to two-thirds of the original – while still meeting your objectives – then that’s a good sign.
My own experience
I came up with the idea for this post because of a piece I wrote last month (you can read it here). The topic doesn’t matter, but what does matter is that partway through writing it, I thought of a nice point to make. So I wrote a subhead, a couple of paragraphs, added a photo, and came up with a caption that reinforced my point in a mildly humorous way.
But later that day, I came back to my text again, and I thought: do I really need to say all that? After trying and failing to rephrase it, I reluctantly came to the decision that I was trying to please myself rather than please the reader. So I highlighted the entire passage – subhead, image, caption and all – and then I hit the delete key.
As a result, my blog post got better immediately.
Achieving your objective – with fewer words
So the next time you feel quietly proud of what you’ve written, look critically at what you’ve got in front of you, and ask yourself:
- What was my objective?
- Have I achieved it? (Hopefully the answer is yes).
- But then the critical point… could I remove anything and still achieve my objective?
Then look at the delete key. Use it wisely and with confidence, and you’re pretty much guaranteed to bring focus to your message and improve the impact of your writing.