As a communicator, you do plenty of writing and editing. There’s power in how your written words—from your long-form stories all the way down to your tweets. Writing effectively for the web isn’t always as easy as it sounds (see our comments on the human attention span below). And ineffective copywriting? Well, that’s a waste of everyone’s time.
Keeping it Simple
Let’s make one thing clear: Your readers have limited attention spans.
You have mere seconds to capture the interest of your audiences. There was a study conducted back in 2000 that showed the human attention span was 12 seconds long. To put that in perspective, goldfish average a nine-second attention span. The same study conducted in 2013 found that the human attention span dropped to eight seconds. Our attention spans are shorter than a goldfish!
Now, of course, there are reasons for this shift. The evolution of the internet, digital technology, mobile phones, and the like have all had lasting impacts. It’s safe to say that the human attention span hasn’t improved in the seven years since.
I make this point not as some grand critique on the human condition, but as a necessary consideration. As communicators, we have to adapt. Today, we’re all eating from highly-personalized buffets of information. We live in a world of sound bites, punchy headlines, and quick notifications. Denying that fact means becoming increasingly out of touch. Accepting it means understanding that humans are consuming content differently nowadays.
Every time you publish something, you’re not only up against other organizations and thought leaders in your space. You’re up against the eight-second attention span. Your copy must not only grab your readers’ attention, but it must hold it as well. So, we simplify.
Here are four edits to simplify your web copy:
- Eliminate prepositions when possible
More often than not, prepositions aren’t necessary. They inflate word count, and if too many of them are used in a sentence, they take away clarity. As an example:
“Their attempt to provide a justification of the expense was unsuccessful.”
“Their attempt to justify the expense was unsuccessful.”
You may also find that prepositional phrases can be cut entirely from your writing. Phrases like “in order to” and “with regard to” aren’t critical for what you’re trying to say. A great way to identify unnecessary prepositions in your writing is by looking out for passive voice (more on that below).
- Cut “to be” verbs
“To be” verbs are words like “is”, “are”, “were”, “am”, etc. Simply put, these verbs lack specificity. They also express absolutes or an idea of permanence around the subject that isn’t always true or intended. An example:
“The restaurant’s food is excellent.”
“The restaurant serves excellent food.”
These words aren’t always unnecessary, but they can usually be replaced with something more descriptive. Swapping your “to be” verbs can take your copy from something high-level to something more engaging. That’s prime territory for the eight seconds you’re working with.
- Convert passive voice to active voice
Continuing from my first point, you want to stay in active voice. The subject should be performing the action whenever possible. Here’s an example:
“Don was struck by the wiffle ball.”
“The wiffle ball struck Don.”
Active voice makes for better writing. Passive voice reads as indirect. It loses the subject and skirts around what is actually happening, usually for no good reason. There’s nothing wrong with passive voice grammatically, but impersonal writing doesn’t make sense when attention is on the line!
- Eliminate “filler” words and phrases
Words like “basically”, “just”, “very”, “really”, “highly”, “needless to say”, “for what it’s worth”, etc. aren’t doing you any favors. I once had a professor who would always tell us to say what you mean to say.”
“The community center was really busy this morning.”
“The community center was bustling this morning.”
I find it helpful to first ask is it or is it not? Then, to what degree? Filler words take up space where you could be both more descriptive and succinct.
The good news about all of these tips is that once you’re aware of them, you’ll catch yourself in the act. As a result, your writing will get more concise over time. Stripping your copy to exactly what you want to say without anything extra will capture your audience more effectively. Your reward for clarity is attention!
A Quick Note on Readability
Write above that level and you risk losing a majority of your audience. Writing at an 8th-grade level takes intentionality. There are plenty of tools available to generate readability scores for your copy and help you improve it. We use Readable at Mighty Citizen, which gives us a full analysis of our readability down to which sentences and words we can shorten.
Want more writing tips? Check out Mighty Citizen’s free on-demand webinar for writing effective web copy. Fair warning—it might leave you obsessing over every. single. word.