George Bernard Shaw famously began a letter with this apology: “Sorry this letter is so long, I didn’t have time to shorten it”. I use this quote all the time to illustrate that the craft of writing good copy is not in how many superlatives and adjectives you can cram in, but in being able to convey exactly what you want in as few words as possible. Bernard Shaw highlights the fact that it is much easier to ramble along, eventually making your point, but that it is much harder and time consuming to ruthlessly edit and hone your first draft. Or even to write straight out of the box in an economical manner.
One author who made a trademark of this was Ernest Hemingway and I bet there aren’t too many copywriters who haven’t looked in admiration to his terse, aggressive style. What may surprise you though, is that he developed this style when working on The Kansas City Star newspaper. The reason we know this to be fact is the existence of the paper’s Copy Style Guide, which you’ll find by clicking the picture of it below.
It’s a collection of 50 or so hard and fast rules every reporter had to adhere to and reading them, it’s instantly obvious how the young Hemingway was influenced. I think we can all learn from them too and I urge you to download the pdf as a useful reference the next time a writing task falls to you. In the meantime, here are my favourite five points from the guide.
- Use short sentences. Use short first paragraphs. Use vigorous English. Be positive, not negative.
- Watch your sequence of tenses. Eg “He said he knew the truth”, not “He said he knows the truth”.
- Eliminate every superfluous word. Eg. “Funeral services will be at 2 o’clock Tuesday” not “The funeral services will be held at the hour of 2 o’clock on Tuesday”.
- Don’t split verbs. Eg “He probably will go” not “He will probably go”
- Be careful of the word ‘only’. “He only had $10” means he alone was the possessor of such wealth; “He had only $10” means the ten was all the cash he possessed.