Honey, I shrunk the web copy (and I didn’t lose an ounce of meaning)



Once upon a time, we produced something called paper documents on clickety-clacking machines called typewriters. You could fit only so many words onto a page. Once you reached the bottom of the page, the paper would eject from the typewriter’s roller, and you were done.

Now, in the era of computer-mediated communication, we tend to think of “pages” as elastic spaces. Text is no longer roller-bound; it’s endlessly scrollable. As a result, I encounter many web pages that include an overwhelming amount of text. Far more than the user needs to identify what they’ve come to the site to find. So much that the amount of content becomes overwhelming to someone who’s on a mission of rapid seek-and-find, which is how I’d describe most web users.

Here’s a hard truth: when you’re writing for your website, you need to be twice as concise as when you’re writing for the typewriter. For most of us, that means that the process of writing web copy works something like this:

  1. Create a first draft

  2. Tighten up the draft so it’s 20 to 30% shorter than the original. This second draft is now probably concise enough for paper.

  3. Cut the second draft by about 50%.

That’s tough math to swallow, isn’t it? If you’re like me, you may find it painful to part with words it took such effort to birth onto the page. But the secret to compelling web copy is, to borrow the title of a great book by Ginny Reddish, is “letting go of the words.”

Sometimes people cling to their words because they’re afraid that the kind of radical pruning I’m recommending will brutally compromise what they have to say. They fear that if they let go of the words, they’ll also let go of their meaning.

Let me put that anxiety to rest. Here are four techniques you can use to drastically shrink your web copy—without sacrificing an ounce of its meaning:

1. Eliminate “that”

Technically speaking, the word “that” has a valuable role to play in a sentence. As a relative pronoun, it connects a descriptive phrase to a noun. For example: “This is the same engine that Elon Musk used in the first Tesla.”

But in many cases, the sentence makes perfect sense without that connector, as in this rewrite of the example above: “This is the same engine Elon Musk used in the first Tesla." Same meaning, one word less.


2. Choose verbs over nouns

Especially when you’re communicating technical information, it can be easy to become bedazzled by impressive-sounding nouns that end in -ion. For example: “Installation and implementation typically take about three weeks.”

You can instantly save syllables by changing those noun-forms to verbs, as in: “Our team will install and implement the system in about three weeks.” Or even better (because it’s more conversational): “You’ll be up and running in about three weeks.”

3. Convert paragraphs to lists

Yes, it’s possible to overuse bulleted lists in web copy, creating an abrupt, staccato effect. But in a page of text, you can probably find at least one passage worth converting to a list. Look particularly for paragraphs including examples, benefits, features, and reasons to purchase.

4. Cut out needless repetition

In writing, as in music, thoughtful repetition enables you to emphasize key themes. But needless repetition clogs up web pages. Avoid simply saying the same thing twice just in case you weren’t clear enough the first time. Instead, express your ideas concisely and precisely, the first time around.

Need help compressing your web copy to make it more readable and engaging? Sign up for a free consult at dawnhenwood.bookafy.com.

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