Make every character count: (How to be brief, Part 2)

Sometimes, your writing has to fit through the eye of a needle.  On Twitter, you’ve got 140 characters to work with. In mobile apps, even fewer. Last time, I covered conciseness: cutting unnecessary information. This post gets microscopic: techniques to trim the last few millimetres.

You can use these techniques for:

  • Email subject lines: You often have a tiny window to tell someone why they should open your message.
  • Shareable content:  Facebook and LinkedIn have will extract a set number of characters from content that you link to. Trimming to fit this limit will stop your message being chopped off.
  • Headings and titles:  when you only have seconds to catch your readers’ eyes, tightly-written headings will draw them in.
  • Designed content:  when graphic designers create layouts, every piece of content – from the snappiest tagline to the longest paragraph – has to fit in a box.  If the design process is well-advanced, changing the size of the box can be costly.

Why does this matter? For twitter and some other social media applications, the character limit is the gatekeeper:  to get your message out there, it has to fit.  For other contexts – headings, paragraphs – it’s about professionalism: crafting words that fit with your design to make a seamless whole.

Here’re some tips to try.


1.  Just write. 

It takes years – even decades – of experience to write pithy text straight-off.  It may be better to write a rough version, then refine it.  It’s like sculpting in stone:  you’ve got the rough form already; then you chisel away at it.


2.  Cut out unnecessary words. 

Letting go of complete grammatical sentences is the easiest way to trim text.  Think of the classic headline ‘Man bites Dog’. The grammatically correct version would be ‘A man bites a dog.  You can see how  ‘man bites dog’ makes perfect sense, without being a proper sentence – and how the second version adds an extra four characters.

Here’s  a social media example:

“About to kick off a plain english workshop with @matt_m_fenwick for the Canberra Uni Management students #clearwriting.”

If all these information elements are important, it might seem that there’s not a lot of fat to trim.  But if you’re really down to your last few characters, we could get a little bit less grammatically correct by tweaking ‘about to kick off’ and losing ‘the’.  ‘Kicking off’ implies starting something, so you don’t need the ‘about to.’:

“Kicking off a plain English workshop with @matt_m_fenwick for Canberra Uni Management students #clearwriting.”

The tone and the information are all the same, but the second version is 10 characters shorter.


3.  Use the shorter form of a word. 

Many words have different forms that you can use, depending on how you want to build your sentence. Compare these two sentences:

“We provide food”

“We are engaged in the provision of food.”

The second version needs 42 extra characters to get the same essential meaning across – and feels pompous. That’s because the second version uses a practice called nominalisation:  taking the verb or ‘doing’ form (‘provide’) and turning it into an abstract noun (‘provision’).

Nominalisation is just one offender in the rogues gallery of unwarranted elongation. For now, my advice is: look at the important words in your sentence, and consider if there’s another version of that word that will take up less space.  Using shorter words will also make your writing punchier.


4.  Put the important word first

Because we read English from left to right, the first few words are your opportunity to grab your readers’ attention.  After that, they may tune out. Compare the two lists, which you might see on a technology company’s ‘Help’ page:

  • Issues with installation
  • Issues with maintenance
  • Issues with customisation


  • Installation issues
  • Maintenance issues
  • Customisation issues

The second version puts the information-carrying word first, so that readers can instantly tell how each item differs.  On e-commerce sites, users are far more likely to click on the right item. On twitter, your message will stand a better chance of standing out in your audience’s feed.


Your thoughts?

This has been a fairly general post.  If you’ve got questions on trimming characters for specific formats, please get in touch. 

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