Updated May 11, 2012
Are you reading this on a Droid? On an iPhone? On some other diminutive device being introduced even as I write this? Knowing that you could be gives me pause. The smartphone has become a primary reading device. So, unless you write nothing but lost-cat posters destined for telephone poles, or other print pieces that no one will ever upload to the Web, you have little choice but to join me in grappling with this question: what must writers do differently to accommodate the small screen?
The answer, I believe, is … nothing.
See my updated, expanded post here:
[I’m leaving the original post below for the record.]
Are you reading this on a Droid? On an iPhone? Somebody is. Somebody is reading everything on a smartphone.
How does this shift to the small screen affect how we write? What should we do differently?
Nothing. We simply do more of what has always worked.
Sure, we have to adapt page formatting and image sizes and load times for handheld devices. If you’ve ever struggled to read a full-size web page by pinching and pushing it around on a 2×3-inch screen — and if you’ve also experienced the ease of reading the same information when it’s formatted for that screen (thanks to a mobile version of the site or to a reformatting app like Wikipanion) — you know what I mean.
But presentation issues are not what I’m talking about here. I’m talking about text. I’m talking about your words, which — sooner or later, like it or not, whatever you’re writing, regardless of your intended medium — might end up displayed in someone’s hand.
Some claim that writers should accommodate small screens by “keeping it short.” But short is the wrong goal. The goal, still, is concise. Tight. Economical. Say it well, and your readers will want to read it all.
Do justice to your content. Include those clarifying details. Develop your arguments. Let paragraphs find their rightful lengths. Don’t stop short just because the screen does.
But do cut every word you can. Be more ruthless than ever. Do the extra edit. Review your words on a smartphone. Then edit again. As screens shrink, every word must work harder to keep its little piece of real estate. Make each one count.
r y cld jst dlt ll th vwls. (Or you could just delete all the vowels.)
P.S. Are you hip to smartphones and tablets and other “external prosthetic devices”?* See my guest post on the larger topic of mobile technology and its effects on the way people (including, notably, marketeers) do just about everything. In that post — Marketing pros: Time to think small – I describe what I heard and saw at a seminar called “The Art of Pop Tech Marketing: 2011 Mobile Technology.”
*The phrase “external prosthetic device” comes from Amber Case, who was one of the presenters at the seminar. Know any people whose machines have melded with their bodies?
Here’s my challenge to you. Dump to be. Get rid of be, being, been, am, are, is, was, were, have been, could be, will be, won’t be, and so on. At least avoid using them as main (linking) verbs, as in “Our product is superior.” Give your readers an action verb instead. Tell them what your superior product does.
Take special care to weed out there are, here is, and it’s in their various forms.
Limit to be verbs to these uses:
- to support another verb (“You’re learning.”)
- to comment on existence (“We think, therefore we are.”)
- to emphasize an equation (“The medium is the message.”)
- to play with a to be expression (“It’s lonely in the middle too.”)
- to create an aesthetic effect, such as a cadence (“If you’re wasteful with words, why should I trust you with money?”)
When you recast to be sentences in creative ways, you’ll use fewer clichés, fewer adjectives, fewer adverbs, and in general fewer words. You’ll use more (and more forceful) verbs — the strongest part of speech there is. The strongest part of speech, period.
Try it. The difficulty might surprise you. Persistence will reward you.
(I first published this article, in a slightly different form, in the spring 1991 issue of IABC Communicator, the newsletter of the Central New York chapter of the International Association of Business Communicators.)