Here’s the secret to successful writing according to Stephen King:
Take out the bad parts.
While those 5 words sum it up perfectly, some people don’t really get what concise writing is all about. Some think that communicating less information and having a low word count is the mark of great writing.
That’s not it at all.
You simply take out the bad parts by taking out the words that aren’t necessary.
Which Words Are Necessary?
Read over your compositions, and when you meet a passage which you think is particularly fine, strike it out. ~Samuel Johnson
A reader once mentioned that he’d seen a well-known guru take Strunk & White’s famous adage “omit needless words” and represent it this way:
Let me be frank. This could be viewed as clever, but if taken literally, it’s some of the worst writing advice ever. It’s not only bad, it’s downright dangerous.
Let me tell you why.
Needless is the most important word of that famous phrase from Strunk & White. You can’t just omit words indiscriminately. You get rid of words that serve no purpose. You cut out verbiage that slows down the reader and detracts from the persuasiveness of your writing instead of enhancing it.
You can’t screw up and leave out the necessary parts. The Samuel Johnson quote above refers to us feeding our own egos with our writing, instead of serving the needs of the reader.
The necessary words are those that ensure the reader’s complete comprehension and result in the action or result you want. The rest can be tossed out.
Let the Fire Show Through the Smoke
You write to communicate to the hearts and minds of others what’s burning inside you. And we edit to let the fire show through the smoke. ~Arthur Polotnik
The whole point of concise writing is to pack more power per square inch of copy. When every sentence of every paragraph of every page burns with focused intensity, people find it tough to stop reading.
Many online writers simply don’t say enough. They write the bare minimum, and expect that because they understand the value of the offer or idea, the reader will too with only a sparse bit of copy.
But that’s pretty rare. Nike may communicate volumes with just do it, but they backed up those three words with hundreds of millions of dollars of some of the best image advertising the world has ever seen.
Something tells me that approach is out for you. So instead, say everything that needs to be said, but ruthlessly edit to let the fire show through the smoke.
People Want to Keep Reading (If It’s Easy)
Easy reading is damn hard writing. ~Nathaniel Hawthorne
In the real world, people want as much information as they can get before making a buying decision. With blogging, getting someone to read an entire article is usually a prerequisite for them to link to you or subscribe to your feed.
If people are interested in what you’re saying, they’ll keep reading as long as you’re imparting new and valuable information. However, you can lose even a perfectly-targeted reader if you don’t take steps to keep them engaged.
The trick is to make the reading easy without being lame.
If you’re a long-time Copyblogger reader, you’ve already been exposed to these tips for writing engaging content and copy, because these steps are what this blog is all about. Since it never hurts to review, here are seven steps to make your readers stick with you until the end and be impressed when they get there.
The Seven Steps
I try to leave out the parts that people skip. ~Elmore Leonard
- Beneficial Topic
Is what you’re writing of interest to the reader? Does it solve a problem they have and add value to their lives? If not, nothing else you read here matters.
- Magnetic Headline
Likewise, nothing else matters if your prospective reader never makes it past the title or headline. Your content could be amazing, but if no one is compelled to invest the time to read based on a boring or vague headline, all is lost.
- Strong Opening
The purpose of the headline is to get the first sentence read, and each subsequent sentence needs to keep the reader rolling towards to the close. The momentum you create with your opening can make your job easier the rest of the way.
- Helpful Structure
Are your transferable lessons easily digested via bullet points and numbered lists? Are you providing compelling subheads that act as encouraging signposts for the diagonal reader to dig in deeper?
- Smooth Transitions
Good writing uses transitional words and phrases to help the content read more smoothly. But good copy also uses psychological connectors to persuade and keep the reader engaged. We’ll talk more about that soon.
- Instant Understanding
Orson Scott Card once said that metaphors have a way of holding the most truth in the least space. The same is true of stories, and being highly specific facilitates understanding, holds attention, and enhances credibility in ways that general assertions cannot.
- Actionable Close
How you close a piece is determined by what you are hoping to accomplish. If you’re not sure what you’re trying to accomplish, you might ask yourself why you’re writing it at all. That actually helps you to determine whether to revamp the content or to put it out of its misery.
Now, Make it Concise
Once you’re sure that every necessary point has been included, go back and take out the unnecessary words. Your goal is to deliver the most concise writing you can for the topic, whether it be 100, 1,000 or 10,000 words. It’s that simple, and that complicated.
I could go on and on, but I think you get the point. I’ll leave you with this:
Proofread carefully to see if you any words out. ~Unknown
Reader Comments (63)
I love getting your emails but never told you so until now.
Excellent writing. Ditto on the advice. I’m printing this one!
Thanks for all your work.
Brian Clark says
Thanks Karen, I appreciate that. 🙂
Michael A. Stelzner says
Brian – Another great one!
So when is the book coming?
I can see it now:
Writers Secrets: Insight From The Minds of Masters
By Brian Clark
John Place says
Excellent post, Brian. As always. Some people confuse being “brief” with being “concise.”
At the beginning of Everything’s Eventual (another example from Stephen King), he demonstrates how the story of Hansel and Gretel could have been told in a single paragraph, and while the meaning would have been clear, it would have been a pretty crappy story indeed.
Brevity is focused on word count; being conside, on the other hand, is focused on clarity.
I like your “smoke and fire” analogy.
Thanks again, Brian.
Damn ! That one trumped mine … again.
Bad habit you got there BC.
” In the real world, people want as much information as they can get before making a buying decision. ”
” If people are interested in what you’re saying, they’ll keep reading as long as you’re imparting new and valuable information. ”
THAT’S exactly what I tried to say in my post, but as usual, you said it better.
Wow!! Another great article. I printed a copy off for my desk, so I can keep it at eye level while I write. Thanks so much.
You make it look too easy brian! ALl of your posts are great, but when I attempt to create some for myself I simply don’t put in the needed effort. I will use these steps and hopefully they will allow me to create something as useful and entertaining as your writing.
Great post! I really enjoy this blog. Thanks for all the useful adivce.
Nice tips. I try and try to keep my writing concise, but I’m failing miserably! Sure wish I had paid more attention in English Lit…lol
rickey gold says
Great article. Sometimes we need to hear it more than a few times for it to stick.
Love the “unknown” quote! And I almost didn’t read it….
I’m fully on your side, but just had an opposing thought: maybe readers (on the web) will always skip some of the text, no matter how concise it is. So: give them lines to skip. Or put another way: make your message clear even if parts of it will not be read.
Chris Garrett says
Great post, I think that says it well. A big part for me is knowing your reader, *really* knowing your reader. What might seem unnecessary to the author might be essential to a less knowledgeable reader, what the author thought was clarification might come over as patronising clutter. We always have to muzzle our egos and instead talk to the audience 🙂
Mike Maranhas says
While those 5 words sum it up (perfectly), some people don’t (really) get what concise writing is (all about). Some think that communicating less (information) and having a low word count is (the mark of) great writing.
That’s not it (at all).
You (simply) must take out the bad parts, (by taking out) the words that aren’t necessary.
(-; Great article, Brian.
Brian Clark says
Mike M., glad to see you read every word… very carefully, it seems. 🙂
Mason Hipp says
Your 7 steps are an excellent start to great writing. I now have printed out at least 4 of your articles to review when writing a new blog post.
Mike, I liked your comment with the parenthetical words. You should post a second one with them removed just for comparison.
Thanks again Brian for the article,
I have to say I dislike the headline of this post as it hurts the copywriting principle of being believable a tad bit.
The combination of “everyone” and “every word” makes me feel like “yeah right”. Reminds me of this book Ive seen on Amazon before “Get anyone to do anything” which I think isn’t a very credible title..maybe I associate both headlines with one another and thats the reason? I really think its a bit overdone and either everyone or every word would have been enough.
That being said Im not trying hard to be a critique..your blog is one of the 3 blogs I check daily 😉
Jay Ehret says
On the subject of smooth transitions, Joe Sugarman encouraged writers to put readers on a slippery slide. Make every element so compelling that readers find themselves falling down a slippery slide, unable to stop until they reach the end.
Thanks for posting these tips. It’s easy to get out of the habit of good writing. I will keep your list close.
Carlos Phelps says
I am hooked, your website is on my must read list.
It always amazes me when I get to a website with No Focus and the smoke is so thick it burns my eyes.
Keep up the good work.
Dave Navarro says
Another kickin’ article. Thanks for all the cross-links to your more detailed articles. Much food for thought.
Rasheed Ali says
Great advice Brian…
Personally, I strive to follow those steps with every sales letter I write for myself or my clients.
I like the headline by the way…it makes people think twice about NOT reading it.
Brian Clark says
Patrick, check again. I didn’t say “everyone,” I said “anyone.” And the way to get “anyone” to read something is to write something of interest to them.
See step one.
Adam Snider says
Another great article, Brian. Definitely things to remember when trying to write great, and not merely good, copy.
John Fitzsimmons says
I just skimmed over most of this article. ;P
Just kidding. Brian, you have a very fluid style of writing that makes reading enjoyable. I’m not sure it’s something that can be taught.
Ruth Greenwood says
I’m a pro songwriter, and your 7 steps embody what’s right about a great lyric. And I’m going to share this page with other writers.
Perfect! The 7 steps at the end are the most helpful because the links back to your other articles explain more about each point.
Can’t wait to read about psychological connectors.
I’m curious how long you’ve been writing. You are so amazing at this that I would be jealous if you casually said “only a couple years.” Best of all, you practice what you preach and I’ve never come across a blog that is easier to read.
Better Blogging with Michael Martine says
The advice was spot-on and much-needed, but what I really loved about this post was the great quotes!
What a post! Thanks a bunch for the tip, Brian.
Brevity is focused on word count; being conside [sic], on the other hand, is focused on clarity.
I didn’t know that. Worthy of remembrance.
Also to Mike Maranhas: awesome demonstration. I’d love to see more examples of this way of getting rid of needless words.
Thanks to all. 🙂
My bad Brian, just checked again and saw I read the word wrong
Sundeep Machado says
The Quotes Are Really great
Hi! I find the tips you gave here very useful. Yes, it’s really important to note the words a writer uses, because that is how a message can be conveyed. Using the right word means getting your message across. Many thanks for the helpful pointers! =)
Excellent post again, Brian :o)
I tend to ‘waffle’ on a bit, but that’s usually, because I don’t want to leave info out.
I love the 7 steps you’ve lined up, they sum up what should be common sense to anyone writting for an audience, but as with all common sense things – it’s usually not that easy to come up with.
Whenever I write for my blog, I try and put myself in the audience’s shoes. And i keep asking myself – if I was the one reading this stuff, would I keep reading, or would I say – “who cares!” – that’s usually a good gauge…
Lawton Chiles says
As someone who is trying everyday it seems to engage an audience with good content…it is just hard I guess.
With clients I cut through the gruff easily, but with my own work i find I am lazy or that it is a lot harder b/c I am trying to edit myself editing myself.
Your post helped me see, once again, that their is indeed a certain map that needs to be followed in order to make even a single post stand out from the rest of the blogsphere.
I appreciate your posts, but it bothers me to find typos in an article about better writing. It always helps to have as many eyes review text as possible. I found at least 3 in this article.
Brian Clark says
Any chance you’ll let me know what they are David, since you took the time to comment?
William Profet :: OneJobTwoSalaries.com says
Very, very good set of advices!
I am going to use them daily with my posts. :))
Aaron Bobrink says
Simply amazing. I enjoy your guest writers Brian, but you remain the copywriting ninja-master.
Phil Crosby says
I love your quotes. Really makes this post fun (I had to double take on the last one, by unknown).
Great information and something I will keep in mind as I begin a new blogging adventure
Thanks for the advice
zsa zsa says
I’ve been learning a lot from your posts. I’ll keep these tips in mind every time I write…great quotes too!
Dan Cottrell says
Argh! Just submitted some copy to my publisher and then read this.
Excellent stuff. Thinking (very) carefully of what I need, and not to write.
Do you have a list of “bad” words? For instance:
Going off the comment Karen first made, I think you should get a nice “print this post” icon on each of your posts. These articles are so good that they should be taped onto my desktop!
Ask your designer about it. There’s a great one called “WP-Print.”
Steve Tylock says
I loved this advice – and under the “better late than never” category, I’m writing about copyblogger.com and this article specifically on http://www.timelyinsights.net
Thanks for the tidbits. At times I can be overly non-terse with many words.. (See what I mean?) and the points you make help me lighten up my posts to mean more with less space.. and then that means I can post much many more posts!!!
I’d like to point out that while there are rules to writing, it’s largely subjective. Good information in here though.
Tim Wilson says
Really found this post useful. I read through it almost every time I post. Was wondering, did you ever do that article on psychological connectors? Sounds interesting…
Excellent article, Brian. I know I’m a bit late to comment, but you apparently removed a few too many words in one spot.
After commenting on the Nike “Just Do It” phrase and campaign, you said, “Something tells me that approach is out for you. “
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