By Howard Fencl, Hennes Communications
Grab readers with your first sentence, and be brief about it! (hey – did you just check your phone?) No more than SIX WORDS in every sentence (that was eight, sorry!) People just don’t have the attention span that… (did you just send a text?)
I’m all about punching up copy to grab readers and keep them reading. I’m all about taking opaque, acronym-laced narrative and slicing and dicing it until sings. And yes, that wooden lawyerly communication that sounds like a legal notice MUST be warmed with real-life language that has empathy and understanding if you expect any human to actually read any of it.
But really? EVERY sentence has no more than six words? I’m recalling Silver Age Marvel comic books with word balloons more meaty – and meaningful – than that. Where do you come down on it? If you’re a fan of Axios – and you find yourself actually reading their posts to the end, but don’t know why, then read on! The Axios masterminds have written a book that unlocks the innermost secrets of their wordsmiths. Maybe. (ooh, a new IG post! Bye!)
The Axios Guide to Writing Well Is Neither Smart Nor Brief
We’re now checking our phones something like 344 times a day, once every four minutes. Keeping a reader’s attention is harder than ever, and VandeHei, Allen, and Schwartz know it. Rather than fight the trend of online distraction, Smart Brevity’s authors embrace it: Today’s writing, they argue, must be fast, clipped, cut to the bone, with every sentence tightly packed with information and designed to grab eyeballs. With an “if you can’t beat ’em, join ’em” ethos, Smart Brevity argues that there’s no way to overcome the distraction economy, so one must fine tune one’s writing to compete with TikTok and Twitter.
How much complexity is lost in a sentence no longer than six words?
Its recommendations follow the trajectory of the authors’ careers: from traditional print journalism like The Washington Post to the founding of Politico, with its quick-hit dopamine stories modeled on ESPN’s SportsCenter, to Axios, which brought an even briefer aesthetic to daily briefings. The book is designed less to be read than it is to be consumed: Like a fast-food value meal, it’s tightly engineered to deliver content in a digestible package for the on-the-go knowledge worker. Every chapter leads off with a word count and the number of minutes required to read it, white space complements bolded text and bullet points, and paragraphs rarely break two sentences. The headers that define Axios’s style (“Be Smart,” “Why It Matters,” “Go Deeper,” and so forth) abound. Em dashes—which, Emily Dickinson will tell you, are the punctuation marks of impatient breathlessness—dominate.
In this age of social media, you must be ruthless in competing for readers’ attention; Smart Brevity thus argues for headlines with no more than six words, with the most important point upfront. Use short, declarative statements with only new or surprising content—everything else gets cut. The writing of Smart Brevity is refreshingly taut and punchy; most of the sentences are finely crafted, short, and to the point, and rip across the page. It feels at times like you’re reading the outline of a book rather than the book itself, but nevertheless your eyes glide effortlessly from one page to the next, bearing out the success of its strategy. Smart Brevity has its share of helpful tips.
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