How many of your speech and language neurons are you willing to prune away?
I write and edit wide-ranging content for a successful digital marketing content company, where we keep abreast of the latest in best practices. Maintaining high standards is important because we hand our clientele deliverables that ultimately affect their bottom lines, and of course the quality of our work speaks volumes about us as an agency. We want everybody to be profitable and happy. And we want to continue to give our clients the best advice to achieve those ends.
Lately the trade chatter’s been all about writing shorter content. And still shorter content. Why? Mainly because we are tethered to our smart phones all the livelong day, and for a message to effectively reach us, it has to fit nicely on that little glass screen without beseeching us to scroll and scroll and scroll, because we might grow impatient and move on. (To be sure, I’m not slamming the device itself, which is pretty dang amazing when you stop for a nanosecond to think about it—an entire computer, widely available, globally connected, with the same power as your laptop. And it fits in the palm of your hand.)
When I say shorter content, I don’t mean the web descriptions limited to a certain number of characters or fewer to avoid the dreaded Google nip and tuck in the search results. This is about writing less. And less. For example, cramming your marketing message into a blog post a consumer can read at a glance before going on, but hopefully not before the desired “conversion” that ends in an e-commerce transaction—maybe not right then, but the seed will have been planted. (And if you’re really lucky, they’ll share it via social media—that’s a digital marketing high five, right there.)
The thing is, we’re not talking about an ad slogan made to fit on a T-shirt (USAir Begins With You). We’re talking about writing, preferably using the King’s English with art and skill to thoughtfully engage a reader, ulterior motives notwithstanding. I find this trend to trim more than a little disquieting.
Remember when your prep school English teachers or college professors urged you to be concise in your writing? To express an idea in fewer words, with “tighter” language and presumably more clarity? They were absolutely right about that—wordiness is wearisome. If you can express the same thought more succinctly, without changing its meaning, your message usually packs so much more punch.
But this is a different economy of words, a writing style dictated by our collectively shorter and shorter attention spans, where paragraphs are replaced more and more by bulleted or numbered lists, for example. Waxing poetic has no place here (although Haiku as a form handily fits on the little screen: Click on this here link/Go buy cheap stuff from China/Happy consumer). But so much must be clipped in the interest of space (and time, because nobody seems to have enough of it to parse through a longish article these days), critical ideas—and beautiful language—often fall through the cracks, or get poked through them.
When short digital content is good, it can be very, very good (and by the way, there is a distinction to be made between “good” and “clever.”) But that is so rarely the case. The funny thing is, I have seen some minimalist content out there that is so badly written it still somehow manages to be wordy. Unbelievably, sometimes it’s even celebrated as excellent writing. Go figure. At the risk of sounding like a cynic (okay, I’m a cynic), I submit much of it is tripe.
Back to those neurons: does that sound like rubbish to you? It might be. In fact, I hope it is for the sake of us as a species. But consider the toll this here digital era has taken on our language to date, where words are reduced to snippets that don’t really make much sense at all out of context. I know, because I’m the proud parent of a young millennial whose daily messages to me are often so reductionist I have to ask two or three times for clarification. (I have been known to correct his spelling and grammar on Facebook. I know, but he’ll thank me someday.)
Lest you think I weep for the future, fear not: I see this emerging code for writing the best digital content possible, using the fewest words, as the most magnificent professional challenge: how to effectively engage your audience with the most spartan language imaginable. Evelyn Waugh once said of his own writing, “I put the words down and push them around a bit.” It is a nice metaphor for what we do in this biz, only the data size keeps shrinking (see ‘bits and bytes’ above).
We use “shares” and “likes” to measure success, and sometimes the most horrid content still emerges victorious by these standards. Still, I like to think quality prose prevails over silly numbered lists, like good over evil in classic literature. In the world of digital marketing copy, my opinion does not matter: strategies and yardsticks for success can be discussed in focus groups and around conference room tables ‘til the cows come home, but the only thing that finally matters is the bottom line.