The headline for this post is drawn from my favorite UX book: Don’t Make Me Think, A Common Sense Approach to Web and Mobile Usability, by Steve Krug. He writes, “Get rid of half the words on each page, then get rid of half of what’s left.” When reading websites, people don’t have time to mess around. In fact, they don’t read so much as scan. Long copy throws obstacles in their way. Cutting copy improves UX and makes visitors happy.
How do you do it?
It’s easy to say cut the copy in half, and then do it again, but it’s hard to do. As the famous expression goes, “If I had more time, I would have written a shorter letter” (attributed to Cicero, Blaise Pascal, Mark Twain, Ben Franklin, and others). It takes more time to write succinctly than to blather on. (I know I should take my own medicine. Personally I’m pretty good at being wordy, which you can see if you peruse my website.)
When I do UX audits, I often see three problems that make copy too long. Here are my suggestions to help with each of them. (Note that this applies mainly to functional or informational web pages more than it does to in-depth content like news articles or blogs—although in many cases that type of content can benefit from these tips also).
1. Use active rather than passive voice
There are many ways to shorten sentences. A good one is to look for opportunities to use the active rather than the passive voice.
- In the active voice, the subject performs the action: “Tom threw the ball.”
(4 words, 15 characters).
- In the passive voice, the subject receives the action: “The ball was thrown by Tom.”
(6 words, 21 characters).
In this example the same idea is conveyed in 33% fewer words and 28% fewer characters using the active voice. This alone could get you a long way to the goal of getting rid of half the words.
2. Avoid fluff
Apologies in advance to my agency copywriter friends whose job it is to be creative. Being creative is great—but if it yields more words than needed, it’s not so great for websites. Writing for the web is different than other media.
People often go to websites to find information quickly. Flowery, humorous, clever or creative prose can often become wordy and be counterproductive to conveying the content in a way that’s most helpful to people reading web pages. (OMG, let me rephrase that sentence. I should have said, “Cut the fluff, get to the point.”)
Instructions for how to use the features of a website should be avoided altogether if possible (good UX design should render actions intuitive and instruction unnecessary). For example, never have text that says, “Click the button below to add this item to your shopping cart.” Instead say, “Add to Cart” or “Buy” on the button itself. For complex actions, if instructions are truly required, be extremely brief and to-the-point.
I’m not suggesting that website copy should be bland or uninteresting. What I’m asking from copywriters who are wordsmithing web pages is to make sure the copy doesn’t get too long in the process. Creative copy can be pithy, punchy and short.
3. Use bullet points
When reading websites, people scan rather then read. Converting paragraphs to bullet points can shorten copy because bullets don’t need to be:
- Complete sentences
- Artfully crafted
- Full of adjectives
The advantages of bullets are twofold: they shorten the text, and they make content scannable. Frequent subheads will also make content scannable. And photos and illustrations always help—a picture is worth a thousand words after all.
Please share your tips for shortening copy in the comments box.