Who do you write for? 

Let’s take for granted that you write for the sake of your readers. You have a feeling, an image or an idea. You write, consciously or unconsciously, so that the reader will feel the feeling, see the image or duplicate the idea.

Words are plentiful and free, so there's no penalty for giving your readers more of them and likewise no benefit from conserving them.

Or is there?

Correct answer: if you can achieve your aim with five words, there is no added benefit in doing it with 11 words.

Writing A to B

In writing, as in geometry, the shortest distance between two points is a straight line. Between you ("Point A") and your reader ("Point B"), the straightest line contains only as many words as is necessary to convey the idea. More often than not, when the writer does not take the shortest distance, the reader's mind wanders. 


This can be deadly in marketing and sales copy, where everything hinges on holding the reader's interest and moving them toward the call to action.

(I can just hear some people reading this and saying “Oh, so we’re all supposed to write like Hemingway, in five-word sentences, eh?” That isn’t what I am suggesting but, then again, Hemingway is one of the most widely-read authors of the last 100 years, so….)

Examples


For some, the idea of the shortest distance makes perfect sense when traveling from St. Louis to Los Angeles but may not be as clear when applied to writing. So I will illustrate my point with examples taken from a recent editing job I did for a client: 


1. “She ordered a cranberry juice; she was always the designated driver by default just in case.”

“Default” is defined as “a preselected option that is adopted…when no other alternative is specified.” But the presence of the word “always” makes the use of the word "default" unnecessary; because she was always the designated driver, she is the default.

Additionally “in case” is unnecessary; designated drivers exist in case someone is unable to drive due to drunkenness. 

It’s only necessary to say “She ordered a cranberry juice; she was always the designated driver.”

2. “It dawned on him and he realized that he had never been involved with anyone worth the consideration.”

The expression “dawned on” is practically synonymous with "realize." So, it's only necessary to write “It dawned on him that he had never been involved with anyone worth the consideration.”

3. In some cases, the writer may reiterate who is being written about, when the reader already knows:

“Getting ready for church was a pretty uneventful thing for her: simple dress, comfortable shoes, combed hair, a few accessories, perfume and out the door.”

The sequence preceding this paragraph shows the protagonist in her apartment. The scene is set. There is no need to re-state the who, what, or where. 

“Getting ready for church was pretty uneventful: simple dress, comfortable shoes, combed hair, a few accessories, perfume and out the door,” is all that's necessary.

4. Another form of redundancy is the use of the same sentence structure over and over. In this case, the author starts nearly every sentence in this paragraph the same way:

“She stretched and groaned as she turned over on the sofa. Jerking back after almost tumbling onto the floor, she sat up on the edge of the sofa. She was stiff from the awkward position she had laid in. She felt in her pocket and retrieved her cell phone. 7:45, if she rushed she could still make it for the 8:30 service. She hurriedly dressed quickly into a brown wool sweater dress with brown boots and was ready in record time. She dashed her face with a few strokes of makeup to help minimize the tiredness under her eyes.”

This creates a static effect, similar to a movie where the camera is still and none of the characters moves much. If you want to hold your readers’ attention, vary sentence structure:

“She stretched and groaned as she turned over on the sofa and, after almost tumbling onto the floor, sat up on the edge, stiff from the awkward position she had lain in. Reaching into her pocket, she retrieved her cell phone. 7:45. If she rushed she could still make the 8:30 service. After pulling on her brown wool sweater dress and brown boots, she dashed her face with a few strokes of make-up to help minimize the tiredness under her eyes.”

Possible Source of Redundancy

My suspicion is that redundancy and overwriting are the result of a desire to be perceived as “sophisticated” or from assuming that the reader can’t “connect the dots.” 

I will admit I have been guilty of this (particularly the latter) myself. Eliminating redundancy comes with awareness and practice: Write, write and write some more but then go back and re-read and re-write. I suspect that you will usually find things such as the above examples and perhaps others.

I don't mind reviewing your copy to make it snap or let's talk about your next copy project and I'll write something for you that helps move your customers toward the sale.