“Less is More,” and Other Lies about Writing

If anyone tells you that “less is more,” or says something like, “Don’t use two words when one will suffice,” please 1) Tell them to be quiet, 2) Remind them that puppies cry when they lie, and 3) Walk away, slowly.

 

Typewriter keys (1).png

If you’re an aspiring professional writer, and you’ve gotten as far as subscribing to the notion that “less is more,” you can congratulate yourself on having gotten all the way to about Day Two of Copywriting 101.

Don’t feel bad. There’s a great deal of poor advice out there.

On that note, if you fashion yourself some sort of writing guru, and you’re out there preaching a gospel of “less is more,” stop.

Brevity, memorability, and accuracy

The only time length-without-context matters is when you have a specific character count to manage—social media post, design brief, copy block for a website, whatever it may be. In those instances, and only in those instances, do you need to worry about length. Otherwise, length in and of itself doesn’t matter.

Don’t get me wrong. Length IN context does matter. Let me share a quote with you:

“Put it before them briefly so they will read it, clearly so they will appreciate it, picturesquely so they will remember it, and above all, accurately so they will be guided by its light.” —Joseph Pulitzer

Brevity, memorability, and accuracy. That’s an important trio to remember.

Juxtaposition is your friend

As to that nonsense about one word being better than two, remember this: juxtaposition is your friend. Here’s an example from Shakespeare’s Henry IV:

“… nothing pleaseth but rare accidents.
So, when this loose behavior I throw off
And pay the debt I never promised,
By how much better than my word I am,
By so much shall I falsify men’s hopes;
And like bright metal on a sullen ground,
My reformation, glittering o’er my fault,
Shall show more goodly and attract more eyes
Than that which hath no foil to set it off.”

Now, let’s look specifically at one particularly picturesque (to use Pulitzer’s term) line:

And like bright metal on a sullen ground

“Bright” and “metal.” “Sullen” and “ground.” Here’s what happens if you remove the juxtapositions, in line with the “why use two when one will do” way of thinking:

And like metal on the ground

Is it less? Yes, 28 characters instead of 40. Is it accurate? Yes, in the sense that the meaning is still correct. Metal on the ground. But is it picturesque or memorable? No. No, it is not.

Words are everything. They are our power, our gift, our magic. Words represent one of the defining capabilities of our species, honed over centuries of evolutionary adaptation: language.

Social media is the modern-day equivalent of the smoke break

I mentioned social media above. Let me tell you something about social media. Social media is the modern-day equivalent of the smoke break. It’s what we do when we’re in between two other important things. It’s what we do when we have a little time to kill—when we’re bored, restless, anxious, and impatient. Have you ever actually WATCHED someone when they’re using social media? They’re not focusing on much of anything. It’s a very twitchy experience. 40 years ago, if an ad agency told you they were going to base their entire demographic targeting budget on data accrued during people’s smoke breaks, you would have laughed them out of the room. Because it wouldn’t be representative of who they really are, or what they care about. The behavior people exhibit while on social media is largely not representative of who they really are, or what they really care about. People click on stuff that helps them kill time. That’s all.

Bad data, bad writing

Why do I tell you all that? Because by and large, all these “less is more” people believe it’s a good mantra because they’re looking at tainted data they think is telling them about people’s reading habits. They’re looking at largely useless data, and drawing inane conclusions about “snackable” copy, and the behavior of “skimmers.”

Should you write a magazine article based on data accrued about people’s reading habits in doctor’s offices? No. You shouldn’t. Nor should you write a blog post based on people’s reading habits while on Facebook.

Do you know what I think when I see a blog post that’s less than 400 or so words? I think, bullshit. No point in reading it. No way it has any value.

Unless you think you can do better than Basho, we don’t need you

If anyone is better at short copy than Basho, introduce me. If you’re all about “less is more,” call me when you can write like Basho. Want to know something about Basho? He didn’t only write Haiku. He also wrote long-form travelogues. Brilliant ones. They’re amazing. Why did he do that? Because some content needs to be longer.

For the record, the subheader above is swiped from a quote by James Michener:

“Unless you think you can do better than Tolstoy, we don’t need you.”

Also for the record, War and Peace is long. Long, and amazing.

Actionable value

We mentioned brevity, memorability, and accuracy above. Here’s the other really important thing you need to remember: actionable value. Great writing has value that can be acted upon; great writing imparts value, and makes us act.

Here are two great quotes from Joe Pulizzi, the author of Epic Content Marketing:

“Content marketing is the marketing and business process for creating and distributing content to attract, acquire, and engage a clearly defined and understood target audience—with the objective of driving profitable customer action.”

“Good content marketing makes a person stop, read, think, and behave differently.”

First, we have a definition of what content marketing is, then we have a definition of GOOD content marketing. In a nutshell, it’s all about actionable value. As a writer, your job is to deliver valuable words that inspire a reader to act upon them.

Show me the glint of light on broken glass

Here’s another quote for you:

“Don’t tell me the moon is shining; show me the glint of light on broken glass.” —Anton Chekov

Chekov is generally considered to be one of the great short story writers of all time. Note: short stories. Short.

As a reader, when you tell me the moon is shining, that’s all I know. That’s all I feel. That’s all I take away. When you show me the glint of light on broken glass, I am transported. I am in the story; a participant. I am moved. I am awakened. I am inspired. I have seen that which I had not seen before. The moon is shining is not “less is more.” It is just … less.

I’ve been a professional writer in some capacity for most of the last two-and-a-half decades. For the past 10 years, a great deal of my writing has been “business” writing. In my role as a “business writer,” I get asked a great many questions about writing, and one of the most common is, “How long should my article be?” The answer to that question is simultaneously very simple, and very complicated:

Exactly as long as it needs to be.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: