Writing: the long and the short of it

How to write short copy
Posted on July 19, 2011

Tonight, I am wrestling with words again. I’m working on a grant application for the school. One of those never-ending forms that requires pages of repetition and the use of ‘keywords’.

It is the kind of writing that does my head in, mostly because it needs to be so precise.

Describe your project in 50 words.

In 150 words, tell us everything you can about your school, your town, your region, your state and your country. Make them count.

Outline in 75 words every single detail about how this five-year program will be managed.

Writing ‘short’ is seriously hard work.

When you write ‘long’, words must be managed, planned, projected, plotted and massaged.

When you write ‘short’, there is no substitute for precision.

Why use four words when one word will do? Is that the best possible arrangement for that sentence? Is it still a sentence now that you’ve removed all the good stuff?

The key to writing short is, strangely, a plan.

To me, it’s even more important here than it is when wrangling 90,000 words into a novel.

Dot points are your best friend. Write down everything that needs to go into your 50 words, even if you start with 500, and then cut, condense and carve them down, down, down.

Like reducing a stock. All the ingredients, nuances and flavours must still be there, but in the most concentrated form.

Twitter, that much-berated water cooler of our time, is a fantastic place to hone short-form copy skills. If you can say it in 140 characters and still manage to insert personality and voice, you’re well on the way.

Which is why I’m heading there right now (@altait if you want to say hi). I’m not procrastinating, you understand… just practising.


A L Tait The Fire Star USAAre you new here? Welcome to my blog! I’m Allison Tait and you can find out more about me here and more about my online writing courses here.

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  1. Sarah

    Did you manage the bit where you had to “Outline in 75 words every single detail about how this five-year program will be managed” Seriously? because I think there should be an award for that.

  2. Sally

    Agreed. Writing short is VERY hard for me. I love words and just want to use as many of them as I can — it only seems fair. When I first started using Twitter, I really hated it because of the word restriction thing but it does make me think about word choice more. Although, oddly, my blog posts have just gotten longer since I started tweeting. Compensation? Who knows.

  3. Cate Bolt

    I knew there was a point to the time I spent on Twitter. Other than feeding orphans and saving the world. Now I know.

  4. Looking for Blue Sky

    Except reducing stock is a crude way of making something smaller, what you are doing is more like pruning, where each cut is carefully made so as not to damage the whole.

  5. Erin

    Words; words are beautiful. I’ve recently re-discovered a love of writing, but struggling to find my brain amongst years of flabby exercise.

  6. Kerri Sackville

    YES! I’ve done lots of writing like this and you have NAILED it. ‘Reducing stock’. Love it!!!

  7. Rachel Faith

    Water cooler of our times indeed 🙂

  8. joeh


    Cranky old man

  9. InkPaperPen

    I like this post. I have been trying my hand at flash fiction lately. I’m hoping it will help me to become more economical with words.

    I love your fabulous justification of Twitter time!


  10. Posie Patchwork

    OH what, no fun to win a trip in 25 words or less, but something for the school?? Geesh, we don’t want for grant writers in Canberra, half the school is public service (they eat red tape for breakfast) & the other half is military (if you can say something in 5 words or less, that is always better than padding or fluff, even better to use acronyms!!)
    Good luck, i hope it comes to you & aren’t you glad you have back space & delete, imagine doing it on a typewriter!! Love Posie

  11. georgi hampton

    oh i know that kind of writing… i have been writing ‘statements of objectives’ namely, all about yourself, why you want to be a scientist, why you’re awesome .. in 1000 characters. oh it is so hard and so important..

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