Of all the factors which determine the length of a piece of copy, the desire to communicate clearly – to say everything which needs to be said – should be at the top of the list. So why is it so often at the bottom?

Because fear sets the word count

Sometimes there are real limits on length, when a few extra words means adding four pages to a printed document. Other times, the client gives the designer’s ego free rein and the copy suffers the consequences.

But what about when there are no physical constraints? That’s when the fear sets in. Here’s the thought process:

Everyone who might read this is super-busy. If the copy looks long, it’ll put them off. But if it’s short there’s more chance they’ll read it, so let’s keep it down to 200 words. Or 150. No, make it 100…

That’s how fear sets the word count, even though 250 or 300 words might be what’s needed to get all the client’s messages across. The result – no matter how tight the writing – is copy that’s neutered, with vital pieces chopped off.

People only read if they’re interested

Here’s the flaw in the fear-driven thinking: people only read if they’re interested. You can make your copy as short as you like, but if the subject doesn’t grab them they won’t get past the first paragraph, let alone reach the end.

The flipside is that if your reader is interested, they want more, not less. That’s why the News of the World devoted 2,600 words to Wayne Rooney’s private life – because their readers wanted every detail.

Give your messages the space they need

The interested readers are the audience you should be targeting. They want enough information to judge what you’re saying, to know whether they want to work with you or invest in your company or believe you’re a paragon of corporate responsibility.

So don’t give in to the fear. Know when to use long copy. Write as succinctly as you can but make sure you give your messages the space they need. If you don’t, you’re letting your real audience down. And yourself.