Think Big, Write Small

“Although there is no substitute for merit in writing, clarity comes closest to being one.” – Strunk & White

Long blog articles are going out of style, as we all learn to write short concise messages (for many in less than 140 characters). The danger of this change is that subtle meanings can be lost and messages impoverished by a focus on literal meanings and core content without the context. In Microstyle, Christopher Johnson provides some useful tips on how to think big and write small to make short but important messages stand out from the crowd and stick in the mind.Making meaning

The longest and most useful section of the book shares a number of ideas for ensuring that your message carries the right meaning. Semiotic thinking is useful here. Firstly, in understanding the differences between iconic, indexical and symbolic meanings (read a detailed explanation of Peirce’s typology here) or, simply put, the differences between meanings based on similarity, meanings based on some connection (causation or correlation) or meanings based on arbitrary association (culturally shared). These distinctions are often related to distinctions that Roman Jakobson made within the structure of communication which he divided into six parts: sender, message, receiver, context, channel (medium) and code (cultural conventions). Jakobson argued that any communication focuses on at least one of these dimensions. For example, it might focus on the speaker by talking about their emotional state, or the receiver by eliciting an emotional response, or the context by singling out something nearby.

The most important rule of creating meaning is to be clear. In some contexts, this means being simple and direct which works especially well in local advertising, direct selling and product naming. Simplicity can also be thought provoking and memorable, as in the example of Michael Pollan’s advice for healthy eating, “Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants”. Hollywood use the high-concept pitch which is an extremely short phrase that encapsulates a movie (e.g., Alien described as “Jaws in space”). Another simple and direct film idea is Snakes on a plane (which is also the title). As the expression goes, “it does exactly what it says on the tin.”

Indexical and iconic meanings are often termed metonymy and can be powerful ways of communicating clearly. Think of the store Staples, which uses this in two ways, as staples are one of the items sold at the store and ‘staples’ also has a meaning of ‘basic needs’. Metaphors can be more powerful still (Aristotle thought them the most important thing to understand for good style). Read more about metaphors here and in Lakoff & Johnson’s Metaphors We Live By. Here is a list of metaphors identified by Joe Grady as primary metaphors commonly used in everyday language (these are American of course):

  • Affection is warmth
  • Importance is big
  • Happy is up
  • Intimacy is closeness
  • Bad is stinky
  • Difficulties are burdens
  • More is up
  • Categories are containers
  • Similarity is closeness
  • Linear scales are paths
  • Organisation is physical structure
  • Help is support
  • Time is motion
  • Change is motion
  • Purposes are destinations
  • Purposes are desired objects
  • Causes are physical forces
  • Relationships are enclosures
  • Control is up
  • Knowing is seeing
  • Understanding is grasping
  • Seeing is touching

It is important to choose the right word(s), For example, Apple’s name has many interesting associations (symbolic) with learning, knowledge, sin and subversion. Words can be very powerful in creating visual associations (‘painting a picture’), especially sensory associations (e.g., M&Ms ‘melt in your mouth and not your hand’) and words which create a sound picture (see below).

Film directors use two different techniques to tell stories. Directors like Orson Welles use mis-en-scene to let the story unfold in long takes, relying on detail to tell much of the story (I saw The Amazing Spiderman yesterday which has many long takes). Directors like Sergei Eisenstein use montage to let the story unfold by the juxtaposition of multiple images to narrate ideas (the last James Bond film, Quantum of Solace, used this style too much for many people). Words can be used in the same way.

Ambiguity can work too – most memorably in the Conservative campaign slogan from the 80s, ‘Labour isn’t working’ or the Gillette slogan, ‘The best a man can get’.  Of course, ambiguity is at the heart of many good jokes, with Groucho Marx an expert as in the following:

  • “I shot an elephant in my pajamas. How he got in my pajamas, I’ll never know.”
  • “Outside of a dog, a book is a man’s best friend. Inside of a dog, it’s too dark to read.”

Sometimes it even pays to say the wrong thing, as in one of the most famous ad campaigns of the twentieth century. This inverts the common expression ‘think big’ to get customers to rethink their priorities in choosing a car (the market was dominated by leading turcks at the time). Vokswagen similarly used the line ‘Ugly is only skin deep’ along with others.

Miller Lite used this trick too when they said, ‘Everything you always wanted in a beer, and less.’

Right sound, right context, right structure

If you want a message to be repeated (and who doesn’t) then it pays to make it easy to say as well as hear so keep it short and clear (why else do consumers refer to Coke rather than Coca-Cola). The best slogans such as “I’m lovin’ it” and “Just do it” are similarly short, clear, easy to understand and easy to pronounce.

Phrases with natural rhythm are much easier to pronounce – we all say ‘Salt and pepper’ and not “Pepper and salt’ because it has a natural rhythm and cadence, in the same way that good music does. Repetition and rhyme help too (some of the best poetry uses repetition to reinforce meaning and to create a sense of rhythm). Repeating structures can also work effectively, as in the start of Hard Times by Charles Dickens, “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times; it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, etc”.

Creating new words can be effective too, and there are several common ways to do this.

  1. Reuse an existing word (apple, spam)
  2. Create a new compound word (YouTube, website)
  3. Create a blend of words (technorati, Synovate)
  4. Add a suffix or prefix to a word (Uncola, feedster)
  5. Make something up arbitrarily (Bebo)
  6. Make an analogy or play on words (podcast)
  7. Create an acronym (scuba)

Although good writers are told to avoid cliches like the plague, they can be useful for the reader who ‘knows one when they see one’. A good strategy when you find you are using cliches is to try and paraphrase (in the same number of words or fewer. And if you can’t, then maybe you need to work with the cliche!

Cliches are of course part of our everyday speech and the final advice I can pass on from Microstyle is to mirror everyday experience and normal conversation (as in Bill Clinton’s famous slogan, ‘It’s the economy, stupid’ or L’Oreal’s, ‘Because I’m worth it’).

Our language is infinitely rich, which makes writing concisely all the more difficult. Focusing on three key principles can help us all write better copy:

  1. Keep it short and simple
  2. Get the right meaning
  3. Use everyday language


Microstyle: The Art of Writing Little by Christopher Johnson (2011)

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