Monday, November 5, 2018

To save energy and retain readers, use fewer words.

Since the end of the last century, many words have been written and said about minimizing the use of vehicles, fuel, heat, power, water, food, packaging, building materials and more. We are supposed to SAVE vital resources.

I think it's time to say a few words about using fewer words.

The archaic phrase "Inquire Within" has been pissing me off since I was a teenager.

The sign shown above does not display a phone number or a web address. But—if the sign did not say "Inquire Within," and you wanted to get hired, exactly what would you do but open the door, walk in and inquire?

Insecure bureaucrats, lawyers and bankers are often responsible for the excess verbiage that infests our world.

In a previous life I was an advertising copywriter. I won a big-deal award from the Advertising Club of New York, had mostly good cli­ents with inter­esting products that I enjoyed writing about, and only one absolutely idiotic client.

That was United Jersey Banks, where marketing was con­trolled by castrated dullards in the legal department. (If anyone from that miser­able bank is reading this, I still hate your guts.)

One time I had the brain-numbing assignment of writing a boring ad about savings account interest rates.

The head guy on the bank’s marketing team, a government-intim­idated ball-less nincompoop, insisted that I write “a minimum deposit of at least $500 or more.” I tried explaining to this testosterone-depleted wuss that all this was repetitive and redundant and superfluous and unnecessary, and that we did not need to say all three!

The pathetic castrato would not give in and neither would I. I told him to write his own damn ad and I left the room. My only regret was that I didn’t shut off the light and slam the door and leave the overpaid fool sitting in the dark, crying and caressing his empty scrotum!

It would have been worth getting fired for.
  • It's not just lawyers. Many 'ordinary' folks have a strange impulse to pompously inflate their sentences when they speak or touch a keyboard. They'll type "Utilize" instead of the simpler "use" and "terminate" instead of the space-saving "end" or "stop."
  • Avoid lawyerly phrases like "In the process of" and "for the purpose of."
  • Many people overuse adverbs. They often add nothing useful. Purge "basically," "currently" "seriously."

A sign on this gas pump says, "Product Contains Up to 15% Ethanol." If the first two words were deleted from the sign, would the message be less clear?

The same principle applies to writing books, articles, blogs and websites. Almost any page can easily shed a word or ten or more—and be improved by the pruning.

I tend to be pedantic (a trait I inherited from my father). I naturally give lots of examples to prove a point. I recently self-imposed a rule to limit examples to THREE—and my arguments are no less forceful.

Print-On-Demand and ebooks are certainly efficient. But if every writer would eliminate two pages out of every 100 pages, book printers would use less paper, ink, toner, glue, energy and time; the trucks that move the books would save fuel, the UPS driver's knees might last longer—and readers would save time.

AND... the books would probably be better if they were briefer.

In an electronic medium like a blog or ebook where paper isn't purchased or stored, writers have unlimited space to spew all of the words they want to and the lack of limits encourages sloppiness.

Advertising is very different.

Despite the banking horror I described above, there is usually a limit on words.
  • If a copywriter writes too many words to fit in a one-page ad, he shouldn't use tiny type and can't assume that the client will pay $30,000 extra to run a two-page ad.
  • If she writes too many words to fit into a 30-second commercial, she can't decree that the actors must speak faster, or that the client must pay for more air time.
Impose some limits on yourself. It won't hurt, and may help.

Help Wanted photo from I forgot where the gas pump photo came from. Delete key illustration from

Bank story from my Stories I'd Tell My Children (but maybe not until they're adults). Available in hardcover, paperback and ebook formats.

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