The Lost Art of Precis

by on December 5, 2018

The state of copy writing on most websites appears to me mostly to be good in terms of tone, but rubbish in terms of length and structure. I also notice that just about all “style guides” for tone of voice don’t address this issue either. It’s not very hard to explain the concept of precis, or extracting the key meaning from a longer text, yet the idea of brevity seems to be absent on most sites. To arrive at the necessary brevity, the art of web writing needs also to be the art of precis.

It is true that “simplicity” is often invoked in style guides, but fails to point out that simple words and short sentences aren’t enough to write well for the web and mobile. You have to convey meaning efficiently. Fail to do that and the meaning will be lost by being ignored. And if the meaning is lost, there’s no point in having the copy there in the first place. So most guides to writing for the web are the wrong way around.

This is a good this example from Bulb’s style guide:

“Simplicity is the key to Bulb. And the key to our language. Nice simple words. Short, simple sentences. Everything clear as day. This is harder than it sounds. But it’s what we’re here for, so we need to make sure we live by it. Take the time to edit your writing. What can you cut? (It’s amazing how much you can.) Which words could be simpler, or more straightforward?”

A precis for which would be:

“Use nice simple words. Short, simple sentences. Take the time to edit your writing. What can you cut? Which words could be simpler, or more straightforward?”

This precis would, I suggest, be far better in the context of a website or mobile app than their verbose example. Here’s an attempt at explaining the process of condensing the original text:

“Simplicity is the key to Bulb. And the key to our language.”

This is redundant because this is a style guide. If it wasn’t key to Bulb, the example would be different. Show, don’t tell.

“Nice simple words. Short, simple sentences.”

This is part of the core message (and demonstration) so it should stay.

“Everything clear as day.”

Again, redundant because that clarity should be self-evident from the previous sentence.

“This is harder than it sounds.”

I was tempted to leave that in, but it’s really a separate topic (about difficultly, not simplicity) so I removed it.

“But it’s what we’re here for, so we need to make sure we live by it.”

This is just a longer repetition of “Simplicity is the key to Bulb.”

“Take the time to edit your writing.”

This is also core to the meaning so it should stay.

“What can you cut?”

This is a repetition of a kind, so it can go.

“(It’s amazing how much you can.)”

Again, that’s a separate topic so it can go too.

“Which words could be simpler, or more straightforward?”

Because this should be the major part of the instruction, it’s worth repeating to make the point. So it can stay.

 

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