Write short; read quick

stack_of_booksThere’s a big difference between reading for information and reading for pleasure.

Many writers don’t get that. When they’re encouraged to write short — to use plain words, tight sentences, brief paragraphs, bulleted lists — they don’t hear that you’re trying to enhance readability. They get a rushing in their ears and hear one (incorrect) message: “You’re trying to destroy my language!”

That’s because many professional copywriters are dyed-in-the-wool, obsessive, library-lovin’ readers. And we like our words. The longer and more luxurious, the better. I mean, we read people like Italo Calvino and James Joyce for fun. You think we can’t handle long sentences? We eat long sentences for breakfast.

But that’s reading for pleasure.

Reading for information? That’s another matter entirely.

Reading for information is a chore. And whether you’re reading a B2B white paper or a fact sheet from your oncologist, it’s not fun. It’s a means to an end. And you want to reach that end quickly.

That’s where readability comes in. Writing short helps people read quick. It’s as simple as that. And believe it or not, literature lovers, there’s an art to it. Just as there’s an art to writing long.

Ann Wylie could be considered a master of writing short, just as David Foster Wallace is a master of writing long. Each style of writing has a purpose. Each has a place. And when you need one, you don’t want the other.

So next time an editor or creative director encourages you to write shorter, don’t get defensive. Take a deep breath and remember that you’re writing for readers.

And whether it’s a blog post, case study, or website, you need to get them information quickly. So they can get on with their lives.

Samantha Enslen is a writer, editor, and reader. She runs Dragonfly Editorial.  This post was originally published in 2011.

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