Secrets of a Master:
Less Is More. Confessions of a Word-a-Holic

My name is John … and I'm a word-a-holic.

There, I've said it.

Yes, that's right. I over-write.

I can't help myself. I love words. I love ideas. I love the way each leads into another like a jazz improvisation. I'm addicted to irony. Doped up on metaphors. Drunk on detail.

Where some use language like stepping stones in a river, I prefer to plunge in and get soaked …

Where some use analogies like nails to hang a tapestry, I take the tapestry itself apart and count the threads …

Where some dig into a story like a Californian picking sprouts from a salad, I dive in like a fat man locked up all night in a doughnut shop …

Sigh. See what I mean?

Don't get me wrong. So far, I've been pretty happy as an over-writer. When I'm at my keyboard, the time flies by as if it were nothing.

More than once, I've written straight through the night. Through the incessant chirping of birds at dawn. Through the buzz of the alarm clock. Even through pot after pot of burned coffee.

I've cranked out 25 pages in half as many hours. I've written e-mails big enough to shut down computers at the Pentagon … short stories longer than most novels … and direct-mail packages as thick as a phone book.

Every year, I am personally petitioned by Tree Huggers of America to please … please … PLEASE … just stop.

What's more, my over-writing has had – despite all predictions to the contrary – some pay off. I've won a couple of small writing awards. I've made a pretty nice living. I've sold several million dollars worth of products for my employer. And, friend, you can't imagine what it's done for my typing skills.

But at what cost? It's hard to say.

With direct mail, I've seen more than one of my over-written packages do well. Despite predictions to the contrary. It's hard to argue with success. But it's also too easy to defend it. So I'll resist the temptation and instead ask the question that must be asked: How much better would those packages have done with tighter copy?

My guess is, a lot better. But enough about me. How about you?

Have you ever found yourself and your ideas swerving across the page like a car without brakes? Like a bus driver who's had too much cough syrup? Like a groom at a wedding who's forgotten to put on his pants?

Few people over-write as much as I do. But if you suspect that maybe … just maybe … you too might get sentimental over words and ideas that are better left behind, I invite you to join me in an ongoing campaign of self-improvement.

Under-writers, don't despair. The challenge presented by a blank page is the same as you'll find in an over-written one: Eliminate the ideas that don't sell. Find the one that does. Focus on supporting it.

Late, great copywriter David Ogilvy put it this way: "It's useless to be a creative original thinker unless you can also sell what you create."

Even more on point was recent advice from my friend and mentor, Michael Masterson:

"In copywriting, less is more. One good idea persuasively articulated will do much more work then 10 ideas cobbled together.

"Forget about all the nuances, the exceptions, the ironies, and the parallels. Identify the idea that people will get excited by. State it strongly, simply, and immediately. Then prove it 16 ways till sundown.

"After you've finished, put the manuscript down and let it rest. Then go back at it and cut out everything that doesn't sell that one idea. Be ruthless. The result will be much stronger, faster, more readable copy."

Let's consider that our locker-room speech.

Given the message, I should stop here.

But I happened to come across a copy of "Hemingway on Writing" yesterday. Hemingway – though never a copywriter – had a style concise writers everywhere admire. Here's what Hemingway had to say …

In a letter to editor Maxwell Perkins (who made Hemingway's career, by the way):

"Eschew the monumental. Shun the epic. All the guys who can paint great big pictures can paint great small ones."

In another letter to Max:

"My temptation is always to write too much … [but] guys who think they are geniuses because they've never learned to say no to a typewriter are a common phenomenon."

To George Plimpton during a Paris Review interview:

"The knowledge I leave out of a story is like the underwater part of an iceberg …"

And last, again to Max:

"Writing is a hard business, Max. But nothing makes you feel better."

That said, I'd be remiss if I didn't leave you with a few practical tips. So here they are: "6 Ways to Write Better with Less."

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Published: July 16, 2001

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