Professional development and training blog of the Public Relations Society of America (PRSA)
December 3, 2009

Readers Want Less

Establish copy length limits

“Brevity is the sister of talent.”
— Anton Chekhov, Russian playwright

Size does matter. All things else being equal, your readers would rather read a short piece than a long piece.

In writing — as in eating, imbibing, reality TV viewing and so much else in life — it’s good to set limits. In other words, establish an appropriate length limit for each piece you write. Here are some ideas for inspiration:

  • The recommended length of the average press release has dropped from 400 words B.I. (before Internet) to 250 words A.I. (after Internet), according to B.L. Ochman, president of What have you done to respond to the obstacles of screen reading in your PR and other communications?
  • What’s the best length for a tweet? While Twitter cuts you off at 140 characters, the better limit is actually 129 characters, according usability expert Jakob Nielsen. That allows for the average 11-character attribution that gets added whenever anyone retweets your status update.
  • Sandra Oliver, a researcher at Thames Valley University in London, found that employees would read about 400 words of their CEO’s message. How long is your CEO’s message? If it’s longer than 400 words, did you put the words you don’t want employees to read after the first 400?

The right length for each piece, of course, depends on the topic, audience, medium, vehicle, budget and other matters of judgment. But using these ideas and observations, you can establish general copy length limits.

Cut Through the Clutter

Is your copy easy to read and understand? That’s one of the two key questions people ask to determine whether to read a piece or toss it. If you’d like more techniques for making your copy clearer and more concise, please join me at PRSA’s Jan. 21 teleseminar, “Cut Through the Clutter: Master a Seven-step System for Making Every Piece You Write Easier to Read and Understand.”

You’ll learn:

  • How to edit by the numbers: How long should your paragraphs be? Your sentences? Your words?
  • Three effective ways to shorten your copy.
  • A “funnel system” you can use to make the editing process more efficient and effective.
  • How to avoid a reader backlash that could be causing people to toss your copy without reading it.
  • Techniques for solving the “visual duration-sensing apparatus” problem.
  • An easy approach for making your copy more conversational.
  • How to use the word count function to make your copy easier to read.

Learn about my other upcoming teleseminars.


Source: Ann Wylie, “Cut Through the Clutter,” Wylie Communications Inc., 2005

Ann Wylie, president, Wylie CommunicationsBy Ann Wylie, president, Wylie Communications. Ann works with communicators who want to reach more readers and with organizations that want to get the word out. She travels from Hollywood to Helsinki, presenting writing workshops that help communicators at such organizations as NASA, AT&T and H&R Block polish their skills and find new inspiration for their work. For PRSA, she presents programs like “Writing That Sells — Products, Services and Ideas” in on-site sessions across the country. Ann is the author of more than a dozen learning tools, including, a toolbox for writers. In addition to writing and editing, Ann helps organizations launch or revitalize their Web sites and publications. She has served as a public relations professional in an agency, corporate communicator for Hallmark Cards, editor of an executive magazine and consultant in her own firm. Her work has earned more than 60 communication awards, including two IABC Gold Quills. Get a free subscription to her Writing Tips e-zine.

Join Ann for her teleseminar, “Cut Through the Clutter: Master a Seven-step System for Making Every Piece You Write Easier to Read and Understand” and for her seminar “Writing That Sells — Products, Services and Ideas”  on Friday, March 5 in New York, NY.

  • Gina Cuclis

    I think experienced PR pros know these points and practice them. However, they are excellent reminders. The trouble with copywriting is when others involved insist on adding unnecessary extras. When writing press releases, managing egos can become a bigger part of the job than the writing.

  • awylie

    I think that’s true most of the time, Gina, although as a writing coach who works with experienced PR pros every week, I have to say I rarely see 250-word releases. Agreed, though, that approvers are often to blame for bloated copy. What techniques do you use to manage egos and improve messages?

  • Johanna Brown

    Ann, I think these are excellent points. I agree with Gina, often the client is requesting the extra copy. Frequently, I will share with clients articles that demonstrate the current trend towards using shorter more concise language. When possible, I test the copy with a small portion of their target market and share with my client the feedback. These strategies don’t always work, but as PR professionals, I think it is part of our job to continuously educate our clients.

  • awylie

    I love it, Johanna. How are you testing the copy? What a great idea!

  • Mike Pierson

    The question I always ask executives is: “If someone calls you on the phone, how long do you give them to tell you what they want?” Usually the answer is, “Less than a minute.” Then why do these execs think someone would give them more than a minute of their time, wading through a press release? Grab the audience’s attention, spur them to action, then let them go. Put the fluff into a long version of the release you hang on your web site, if you have to.

  • awylie

    Love that, Mike. Thanks for sharing!

  • joshuadelung

    I just wrote a blog post on my PR blog, “Relatively Journalizing,” addressing some of these same points about brevity, more from a social media (especially blogging) viewpoint. I hope you’ll all check it out and send on the link if you like it!


    Great post here, by the way. A good, and important, read!