For Many Editors, Brevity is Still a Foreign Language
Be brief! That’s the focus of most search engine advisories that address “writing for websites.” Use short sentences and short paragraphs. Leads should make an important point within the first few words. Don’t let vocabulary get out of control, etc.
Following this advice should be duck soup for most editors. But that’s hardly the case. On the web — and in magazines, too — long-winded writing still lives. Parades of endless sentences are the rule rather than the exception. And here’s a puzzling thing: In some cases where a magazine’s news section is appropriately fast-paced, website copy written by the same staff is plodding.
So why does this happen? Any seasoned editor reviewing typical errant copy should immediately see that several 40-word sentences need deflating. Since a lot of news material has the flavor of press release rewrite, perhaps time pressure discourages necessary revision. And how about those puffy quotes often included in announcements of mergers, financial results, personnel appointments and other jazz? Why do we let many of the platitudes therein escape the editorial axe?
Rather than rave further, here is a list of seven pitfalls that inevitably subject readers to long-sentence fatigue. If you avoid these bad habits, your endless sentence problem may go away:
1. First sentence of article is too long; it exceeds 25-30 words. Reason: Information overload.
2. Individual’s title and affiliation combined produce a word jumble.
3. Event identification and location lumped together requires too many words.
4. Basic, long compound sentences are not immediately split during the editing process. Is there any excuse for that?
5. Long introductory clause traps author into writing even longer sentence.
6. Press-release babble, especially when housed in long quotes, is allowed to survive unedited. We need to plead with PR contacts to simplify their quote selection.
7. Sentence involving a direct quote provides source’s name, company and title (which may be mouthful) in one gulp. A better way is to split the attribution so that person’s name and company name appear in one sentence. Full title (often overly long) appears in the next sentence.
Finally, a piece of advice on the need for “speedy” leads. Take a hard look at your website and magazine news intros. How many words are used before a key story point is made? I still see too many “minus 20” and “minus 30” leads. This means that 20 or 30 words were wasted before the real story started. Our goal today – especially for e-news – must be no worse than “minus five.” “Minus one” would be fantastic!
Howard Rauch is president of Editorial Solutions Inc., a consultancy focusing on B2B magazines. Rauch is the 2002 recipient of ASBPE’s Lifetime Achievement Award. You can contact him directly at firstname.lastname@example.org.