Nobody reads long copy

July 25 2016, by Chalky White

Let’s take 932 words and see if you agree.

The first thing to say is that there’s a reason nobody reads long copy any more.

I don’t believe that it’s because the pace of modern life leaves us no time to read more than 50 words.

[Word count: 50. And you’re still reading aren’t you?]

And I don’t buy the idea that ‘Millennials’ and ‘Digital Natives’ prefer their communications to be visual. Or that they don’t have the attention span required to take it all in. And the Internet has not killed the art of reading – after all, Amazon isn’t doing too badly selling old-fashioned printed books.

[Word count: 111. So far, so short copy]

The reason that nobody reads long copy is that nobody writes long copy any more. And if nobody writes it, no clients can buy it, and no consumers can see it.

So why doesn’t anyone write long copy these days?

[Word count: 159. Stay with me on this…]

It could be that they just don’t have the time to write it. Back in the good old days, I once spent about a month on a single piece of long copy. Those days are gone, and probably rightly so. But these days, we’re lucky to have a couple of hours. Imagine what you could create if you had a couple of clear days to give a piece of copy your best shot, not just the best you could do in the time.

Some might complain that it feels like hard work – why bother when you could just re-hash the corporate boiler-plate copy or a paragraph from the brief? Well, if that’s you, then snap your pen in half, and hang your head in shame. Perhaps art direction might suit you better?

[Word count: 299. Woo-yay! You are entering the long copy zone]

Another common objection is that long copy feels a bit old-fashioned. Which is understandable, because when I was looking for examples of great long copy, it seems that they don’t write ‘em like they used to. Almost all the best ones were old ones. But it stands to reason that if nobody’s writing it any more, all the examples are going to be old.

[Word count: 374. You are now way past the magic 300-word mark, where research shows that readership drops off dramatically. But the interesting thing is that it doesn’t drop significantly again until 3,000 words. Which probably means the writing has just filtered out the readers who the piece isn’t really for and has properly hooked the ones who it is relevant to. But don’t worry, I’m not intending to write 3,000 words today.]

Of course, it could be that people don’t write long copy because they don’t know how. But if students are all on the front page of the Telegraph leaping in the air celebrating getting A-stars for everything, then younger writers should be clever enough to construct a piece of long copy. Assuming of course, that you buy the argument my teenage son insists on putting to me that it’s not that exams are getting easier, kids are just cleverer these days.

But maybe it’s not the fault of the writers or the clients. Maybe it’s designers. Yes, designers. They’re the ones behind brand guidelines. You know, brand guidelines that devote pages and pages on how not to do things. Don’t take the logo and stretch it randomly, or colour it in all wrong, print it back to front, or tar and feather it. And further pages and pages about typography: fonts, weights, leading, kerning and so on. And then there’s usually a paragraph about tone of voice, which basically says, “we’d like to sound like Innocent Smoothies”. All irritating enough, but nothing compared to the layout examples which mandate short pieces of text that work with the design ‘vision’. The result? Communications that may look beautiful, but say little.

It’s similar to the way that the same person who is treated as an intelligent, discerning consumer by above-the-line communications is thought to need everything to be repeated, underlined and highlighted in bold by direct mail, why should a person who is perfectly capable of reading a book or a newspaper be judged incapable of getting past 50 words of copy?

Which brings us to the question of how long should a piece of copy be? The answer is simple. Long enough to make the sale or make the point. No longer. No shorter. In other words, the length of a piece of string.

Of course, long copy may not be right for some products or some audiences (which is not to say it couldn’t be done and wouldn’t be interesting).

[Word count 786. Keep going – here comes the good stuff…]

But where it’s appropriate, and where the Brand Police will allow us, let’s think about what we could gain by writing long copy.

We could convince the reader. Not just throw statements at them.

We could develop a tone of voice that’s distinctive and interesting.

We can back up our big assertions with details and examples that prove the point and cement ideas into reader’s minds.

And the sheer length of the copy would subliminally tell the reader that this product or point of view must have a lot going for it (a great argument to win over difficult art directors).

And last, and by no means least, we might just produce some work that we are proud to have written.

[Word count: 917. I rest my case and finish on the grand total of 932.]