Copywriting: It’s not your length that matters, it’s how you use it!
January 15, 2009 • Glenn Murray
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:
- if you can get a reader to read 500 words, you can get them to read 5000;
- long copy can still be succinct; and
- 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:
- Readers are insulted – Obviously readers will find this insulting. Reading, itself, is an investment. In return for their time, readers expect respect.
- 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.
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.