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Improve your writing by making it more concise


Keeping it simple

This week, I came across a listing in the MLS whose description began with “This is a doll house.” I wrote about it here on AG and highlighted the negative responses of the public to the copy. I encouraged people to run their MLS description paragraph by their marketing director or at least a friend with copywriting experience.

The comments on that article are filled with people sharing terrible copy they’ve seen in the MLS and Gwen Banta writes frequently here about MLS copy flubs. Most people here can read and laugh at them along with us as common sense tells you not to lie, be overly clever, use defensive language, or cliches.

We don’t just use writing skills in marketing copy, many of you are bloggers and look to communicate effectively with your readers.

To that end, I want to share a story with you that I first heard when I was in college earning my English degree and was reminded of it again while reading Presentation Zen (each version is a tad different, but the point remains the same)…

The fish story

Presentation Zen’s version:

“When you talked about reducing the text on the slides, I was reminded of a story from my childhood in India. When Vijay opened his store he put up a sign that said “We Sell Fresh Fish Here.”

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His father stopped by and said that the word “We” suggests an emphasis on the seller rather than the customer, and is really not needed. So the sign was changed to “Fresh Fish Sold Here.”

His brother came by and suggested that the word “here” could be done away with — it was superfluous.

Later, his neighbor stopped by to congratulate him. Then he mentioned that all passers-by could easily tell that the fish was really fresh. Mentioning the word fresh actually made it sound defensive as though there was room for doubt about the freshness. Now the sign just read: “FISH.”

As Vijay was walking back to his shop after a break he noticed that one could identify the fish from its smell from very far, at a distance from which one could barely read the sign. He knew there was no need for the word “FISH.”

Now, blogs are fashioned to use words to convey ideas, so we can’t diminish them, but we can often get our ideas across without the fluff, especially in marketing copy. I enjoy writing, so being concise isn’t always my forté, but the fish story reminds me to stay on task and avoid floral language, especially in print marketing.

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Lani is the COO and News Director at The American Genius, has co-authored a book, co-founded BASHH, Austin Digital Jobs, Remote Digital Jobs, and is a seasoned business writer and editorialist with a penchant for the irreverent.



  1. Michael Bertoldi

    February 22, 2010 at 12:37 am

    Great point and great advice Lani. Blogging can be a different story, although still, short and concise is sometimes better.

    Your fish story kind of reminds me of school. In a copywriting class in college, one of our fun exercises was to pretend we had to propose to someone in 5 words. If I remember correctly, mine said “Me, you, forever. Sound good?” I know, I’m no Casanova, but that’s not bad! haha. Good thing my wife didn’t have a limit…

    I think a good practice is also to analyze billboards. Typically, with the rate people drive, process information, etc, a billboard should be seven words or less. It amazes me how cluttered some billboards get.

    And when it comes to say, print ads, quite frankly, most people don’t want to sit there and read a bunch of fluff and puff. Be clever if you can, but know the difference between clever and corny. If your not sure, avoid both. Go with concise and stay on task.

    Great advice LR!

  2. Ross Therrien, Prudential Verani

    February 22, 2010 at 11:14 am

    Guilty as charged. Now our mls has given us MORE space to write.
    We try hit the warm spots in the consumer. True most of us don’t have degrees in English, mine is in art so I guess that’s my default. Totally agree that you only have limited words be able to capture your audience. Billboard analogy will stay in mind. Thanks.

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