Copywriting: It’s not your length that matters, it’s how you use it!

January 15, 2009 •

I swore I wouldn’t write this post. Really! But I couldn’t help myself. There’s just too much misinformation going around about the virtues of long copy over short (and, of course, of short copy over long).

So in a likely vain attempt to settle this pointless argument once and for all, I’m gonna put in my 2 cents worth. Then I’ll shut up!

Long copy is NOT better than short copy!

There! I’ve said it!

Oh… And hold on… I nearly forgot…

Short copy is NOT better than long copy!

Right, that cleared things up, didn’t it? No? Alright, then let’s back up a bit…

A recent discussion of long versus short copy

In a recent post over at CopyBlogger.com, guest copywriter Jim Estill discussed the merits of keeping your copy short: “If you want people to read something, make it short and concise.”

Interestingly, in the comments, quite a few people questioned his advice. They cite the conventional copywriting wisdom that long copy out-pulls short.

To his credit, CopyBlogger’s owner, Brian Clark, quickly pointed out three important facts:

  1. if you can get a reader to read 500 words, you can get them to read 5000;
  2. long copy can still be succinct; and
  3. a good copywriter doesn’t use unnecessary words.

Brian’s right, of course. The post isn’t about short v long copy; it’s about succinct v rambling copy.

Copywriting’s about the reader, not the length

There’s no inherent value in copy length. The only important metric is appropriateness. If long copy works for your audience, use it. If short works, use it. (I know it’s painfully obvious! That’s what makes this whole debate so frustrating!)

Yes, some of the ‘legends’ of copywriting have experimented with their sales letters, making them longer and longer, month after month, until they have a veritable book. And yes, they report that the longer the letter, the better it pulls. (I read something like this in Joseph Sugarman’s, ‘The Adweek Copywriting Handbook’.)

And yes, there is evidence (again, only anecdotal, as far as I know) suggesting that high price point offerings need more copy. And also that many people respond to long copy even when they say they don’t like it.

But none of that means long copy is better! It simply means that SOME audiences respond better to long copy. And I bet they only respond better when all of that copy is succinct.

Long copy needs to be succinct

We all know readers are busy, so I won’t drag out that tired argument (however valid). I’m more interested in the perception readers have of long copy.

Unfortunately, many copywriters hear all the buzz about the effectiveness of long copy, and run off to write up big. They think that all they have to do to drive conversions is keep talking. Never mind the readers’ needs!

This has led to two outcomes:

  1. Readers are insulted – Obviously readers will find this insulting. Reading, itself, is an investment. In return for their time, readers expect respect.
  2. Readers are skeptical – “If your product’s so good, why do you have to try so hard to convince me? I’m not so stupid that I’ll give you money just because you have a lot to say!” In fact, many readers now hit the Back button the moment they see long copy. Thanks to the sheer volume of crap long copy out there, they associate long copy with crap. Of course, there’s a lot of crap short copy out there too, but my experience is this: people think crap long copy smells like snake-oil, whereas crap short copy just smells like crap. The writer’s not trying to insult their intelligence with badly written short copy; they’re just not good at writing. (Remember, I’m just talking about perceptions here.)

So if you’re gonna write long copy, keep it succinct. You have to grab the reader quickly, otherwise they’ll move on in a heartbeat.

Conclusion

As always, you have to write to your reader. Don’t obsess over writing heaps and heaps of words, and, likewise, don’t obsess about distilling it all down to just a few. Write just enough to convey your message, to engage your audience, and to compel them to act.

Or, to practice what I’m preaching:  write as much as you NEED, not as much as you CAN! Great copywriters may use a lot of words, but they still write succinctly and persuasively. Poor copywriters just use a lot of words.

Your thoughts?

Feel free to comment...
comment avatar
Chris Allison wrote on January 15th, 2009

I need to read sugarman's book...I keep seeing it referenced.

Reply
comment avatar
Glenn Murray wrote on January 15th, 2009

Sugarman's book has some gems in it, but IMHO, you have to dig a bit. There's a lot of crowing about how much it's going to teach you, and how much it's already taught you. And there's the smell of the loooonnng sales page in there too (quite a bit of talk about his own success). Frankly, I found it very condescending, but I got about 10 really valuable points from it, which made the read worthwhile.

Reply
comment avatar
Chris Allison wrote on January 15th, 2009

Hmmm interesting. Do you have any recommended (maybe shorter) copywriting reads?

Reply
comment avatar
Glenn Murray wrote on January 15th, 2009

Not really. I don't really like many of them. There's a little value to be had from all of them, but nothing stands out as a brilliant read. Having said that, there's a very good book called 'Sin and Syntax' by Constance Hale. It's more about the mechanics of writing well than copywriting per se. But that means it offers a lot more meat than most copywriting books. You could also try 'Content Critical' by Gerry McGovern. I only read about half of it, but I think that was just 'cos I was already familiar with it all. 'Sin and Syntax' would be my recommendation. It discusses techniques that make your writing engaging, and it's written in an engaging style itself. Not at all dry.

Reply
comment avatar
Chris Allison wrote on January 15th, 2009

Awesome, I'll look into it. Thanks, Glenn!

Reply
comment avatar
Melissa Donovan wrote on January 19th, 2009

I'm an extremely skeptical reader and long sales-ridden copy turns me off but hey - they say it works! I agree that length should be driven by content, not the other way around and writing in a succinct matter (especially when writing copy) is absolutely essential.

Reply
comment avatar
Mel Menzies wrote on January 23rd, 2009

This is one of my main faults. As the author of a number of books, my natural forte is to write at length. To take a subject, break it down into chapter topics, sections, paragraphs, sentences - and make sure that, together, they explore all angles. See - I'm doing it here! It requires real effort for me to write short articles. But I'm trying. Thanks for the article. Found your website through Problogger. Mel Menzies, author of A Painful Post Mortem

Reply
comment avatar
Long copy v short copy - Evidence please? wrote on April 7th, 2009

[...] I’ve written on the subject of long versus short copy before. At length (if you’ll pardon the terrible pun - it’s my blog, whatdyagonnadoaboutit?!). So I won’t go on about it here. Suffice to say that I think it’s horses for courses, and that long copy works well for some audiences and not for others. The important thing is to engage the reader, solve their problems, and guide them towards your desired course of action. (See my post on the inverted pyramid v story-telling approach to copywriting.) [...]

Reply
comment avatar
How to avoid ‘hype’ in your sales copy: Pretend you’re face-to-face wrote on September 15th, 2009

[...] You’ve no doubt heard a lot about long copy out-performing short copy. In my humble opinion, the long v short argument is redundant. It’s not about length, it’s about appropriateness. Don’t set out to make your copy as long as you can; make it as long as you have to. Include everything your reader needs, in as few words as possible. The only rule is this: effective copy out-performs ineffective copy. (Read more of my thoughts on the long v short debate.) [...]

Reply
comment avatar
Perry wrote on November 1st, 2010

If I had to choose between what readers, potential customers say or "copywriters" who say long is better, I'd choose the readers any day of the week. Sorry, fans of long sales pages, but I sell to them, not you.

Reply
Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.