How Many Words?

[April 27, 2010]

On any project, once the initial fuss and bother is done, someone has to start writing copy. Often the main headlines and a swath of continuity copy have already been written. Then a Copy creative receives a loose set of instructions about what to save, what to modify and what to rewrite—from the vast body of existing copy.

Yet, having followed these instructions to the letter, a chilling indictment may still be handed down, often by someone out of touch with the premise of the assignment:

“Too much copy.”
Now, there’s always more than one way to say something in words. Introductory material can be stripped away. So can any concluding material, the summarizing statements that help consumers retain your key points. One can simply end with a terse call to action.

Reducing copy to bullet points is another tactic, as are extra-short sentences and simpler words. An across-the-board ban on adjectives can also be brought into play. That is, assuming the one and only goal of the project is to deliver it with as few words as possible.

If your goal, however, is to push a promotional offer, identify the brand with a cause or deliver value added entertainment, the issue isn’t how many words per square inch, but how complex a message you can reasonably expect your audience to absorb.

Playing the numbers.
For example, a bulleted list of 10 items is certainly succinct. What customers take away from them is not clear. Even assuming a snappy headline and catchy tag, people only understand data in terms of its emotional, cultural and intellectual context. They need a story line, a narrative to make the information meaningful.

The inconvenient truth about copy is that you can’t reduce it to a numbers game. When there’s “too much copy,” what might be at issue is the number of messages you’re trying to convey all at once. Want fewer words on the page? Try saying less. As with the ritual greeting, “How are you?” your audience’s expectation for how much you’ll ask them to retain is fairly limited.

From that point of view, it’s clear that the way to manage copy is not at ground level, when the clock’s ticking and you’ve already run into five rounds of revision. Your thinking should begin at a higher level, as you map out your messaging strategy for the year. Roll your message out rationally and you’ll easily see how to serve it in portions your audience can actually digest.

Asking the wrong question.
OK, I know I’m dreaming. In the real world the discussion of message quickly ends in an agreement to get some version of a general statement across. The discussion then switches rapidly to budget and media buys and, inevitably, an ooo-and-ahh session about the latest developments in database mining.

Yet what we intend to say to consumers is the whole reason the rest of the apparatus exists. Until we recognize that, and give messaging the attention it deserves, we’ll persist in the folly of improvising strategy on the fly. We’ll continue to hire teams of nail biting copywriters to write, rewrite, cut, paste, edit, replace and otherwise violate the tenets of their craft.

And all because, at this late stage, our model for communication is still a tidy array of words dancing tastefully across the page: words as decoration, words as a design element, generic words leaving plenty of room for generic stock art. How many words? Until you have a clear underlying message, I suggest you’re asking the wrong question.


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Mark Laporta

Writer, Creative Consultant
New York, NY




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