With all the Tweeting, blogging, academic papers, and business proposals I’ve been writing over the years, I still haven’t found an answer to, “How long should it be?” Thus, I thought I’d give some suggestions that I’ve heard over the years.
“The length of your paper should be like the length of a girl’s skirt: long enough to cover the topic, but short enough to keep things interesting.” Hilarious, a little bit off-color… but really true when you think about it! This advice was given by one of my least favorite college professors. This is probably one of two things I remember from that class, and the other is not nearly as funny.
“Executives don’t have time to read all your fancy writing. Make your papers 5 pages or less, or they don’t get graded.” This advice was given by one of my favorite college professors, amid a myriad of other great advice. I’ve found that brevity is much more effective in real-world business proposals, so while it’s not necessary to adhere to a strict page limit, it is necessary to keep proposals concise.
“This document gives step-by-step instructions for every possible question. If it can’t be answered by this document, it probably shouldn’t be asked in the first place.” I rarely agree 100% with this advice, but I’ve written several documents with numbered instructions, example scenarios, and screenshots. Thus, it really annoys me when I get phone calls that state, “I got this person’s information… what do I do now?” I generally try to respond in a helpful, non-annoyed way, but I direct them first to the insanely detailed document that I’d emailed previously.
“Don’t make your customers think too hard.” I said this phrase to one of my companies about their marketing material. They were using the same piece to target all of their unique segments, and it was cluttered and hard to parse. I suggested splitting the information for each segment into different marketing pieces, and on the rare occasion that a customer fell into more than one segment, we could give that customer all the sets of marketing materials. We talk a lot about being information overload in marketing, so help your customers out by ensuring that they don’t have too think too hard to figure out what you’re saying.
“Don’t ruin the content with the headline.” I think this applies to Tweets and press releases in particular. One classmate asked me for advice about her company’s Twitter feed, saying they had few followers, few re-tweets, and very little traffic to their website from Twitter. Upon viewing their feed, I saw that every headline gave away all the content in the articles, so readers had no motivation to click on the link for more information. Headlines should give just enough information to whet the appetite, but not so much that a person feels they’ve gained all the information.
So, to all the professional writers out there, how do you find the proper length? Is there a formula that works every time? I think it’s more about knowing your audience, so I rely on different lengths for different projects.