Brevity is the soul of wit – but there is a limit

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The mindfulness is going well. Thanks for asking. Not that you were really asking. Not really. But anyway. Whatever.

Have you noticed that we’re all writing shorter and shorter sentences? Probably not. Neither had I until recently, when somebody who never texts, IMs or tweets wrote me – and I mean really wrote, with pen and paper – an actual letter. What struck me was the length of the sentences. 20 years ago, it wouldn’t have been anything out of the ordinary. But in our fast-paced, 24-hour world of messaging at the speed of light, his style seemed quaint and endearingly old-fashioned. And strikingly effective. It immediately made me think that for all the gains of the information revolution, we’ve lost something very special: the luxury of time, the attention to detail and the effortless eloquence of unhurried composition. Now it’s all staccato and snappy, abrupt and abbreviated. The clue’s in the name: Twitter and Snapchat, WhatsApp and Viber.

Long and winding road

Copy can swing the other way too. I’m often asked to write ‘long copy’, which immediately sets my teeth on edge. Long copy isn’t just copy that’s long – it’s a particular format that resembles a foot-in-door salesman who scarcely pauses for breath. It’s the sort of shouty, urgent, edge-of-the-seat copy that picks you up and grabs you by the scruff of the neck, and doesn’t let go until you’ve bought the special offer and got those great ‘bonus’ products that you don’t want and will never use. And it’s not just the copy that’s long. It’s the sentences too, as they meander and snake and duck and dive before eventually drawing to a close. Eventually. There’s also the other form of long copy that lets it all hang out, and never knows when to stop. It’s not shouty or breathless (those would be advantages in this case) but slow, languid and tedious. It says everything, hoping the reader will pick up the important bits. As if. So too long is bad. But is too short bad? It depends on the context. But here, the context I’m talking about is sales and marketing copy, and informational copy (articles, how-to guides, interviews, fact-sheets, case studies).

Variety. Life. Join the dots.

The key to effective copy – or any writing that doesn’t fall into the IM camp – is variety. If you have all short sentences, it’s choppy, disturbing and difficult for the reader. The subliminal message you’re sending out is that you’re a very busy person, and long sentences aren’t for you. It creates an almost military feel, with the thump-thump-thump of the drum on the parade ground. Even worse, the constant punctuation can seem almost aggressive. It. Stops. People. In. Their. Tracks. It’s easy to write, but exhausting to read. Using exclusively long sentences has the opposite effect. It makes you look verbose and disorganised (most long sentences can, and should, be broken up). It creates the impression that you don’t care about the reader’s time, and that you, on the other hand, have all the time in the world. So the best course is to alternate. Some long sentences, some short. Don’t strive for a particular ratio of long to short, but try to write naturally and let your thoughts flow. And if in doubt, as always, simply read it out. That works every time, letting you hear whether you sound wordy or choppy. If you do, lengthen the short sentences, or shorten the long ones. Or both. And when you have no more to say, stop. Find out more: