How does the way you communicate impact how people receive your message? Will people get the point if you explain more, or will they just get bored? If you’re unsure whether you’re too wordy, then you might need to master the economy of language.
Economy of language is a theory stating that fewer words lead to greater clarity. This idea commonly crops up in education, but it also applies to translation, marketing, and branding.
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This post has been updated in August 2021.
Economy of Language Explained
Economy of language is about concisely making a point. Imagine that your ideas cost money. You’re paying per word, and you want to save.
How can you stay within your linguistic budget? While you shouldn’t skip any essentials, it’s important to
- Trim pieces down to the most vital ideas,
- Use fewer, simpler words to explain what you’re talking about, and
- Break things up in a way that makes them more approachable and consumable.
Avoid phrasing that places undue demands on audiences’ schedules. For instance, if your readers have to grab their dictionaries every few paragraphs, then going through your content becomes an ordeal. There are other ways to sound intelligent and authoritative. Don’t be afraid to scale back, especially when aiming for the ideal voiceover WPM or creating marketing materials.
What Does It Mean to Use Language Economically?
Economy of language isn’t just about keeping it brief. If that were the case, this article would have already concluded.
Looking at the web is a good starting point for mastering economy of language. The Nielsen Norman Group offers handy principles that demonstrate the idea. For instance, you’ll notice that a lot of web text
- Takes the form of bulleted lists, headers, and highlights,
- Includes short paragraphs,
- Has sentences that mostly contain 20 words or less,
- Introduces the conclusion right off the bat in an inverted pyramid style, and
- Sticks to a single idea per paragraph.
Always put the facts up-front. Sure, you might want to wow potential customers with marketing language, but most readers and listeners don’t have time, and many outright hate ads. They’re busy, so don’t make them wait to get the essential details. After all, most people aren’t reading the whole thing anyway.
What do you get when you put all of these things together? You guessed it — scannable content.
When creating something that you want someone else to read, make it easier to seal the deal. By ensuring they can jump through the piece quickly, you let them dip their toes in the water before diving in.
Economy of Language by Comparison
You may have noticed something important: People break the rules all the time. What’s even more confusing is the fact that some viral posts are super long.
Before getting your thesaurus back out, consider the context. A piece of content on the web will usually be way shorter than something in print. Online, you’re competing harder for attention, so you’ve got to get the point in there fast.
Subject matter is also a factor. In an academic journal, you might see articles that seem more like novellas. A celebrity puff piece, on the other hand, will usually be as short as possible. You can also use images and other content to make up for something that seems short.
Don’t forget about social media posts. On top of limiting sharing, sites like Facebook and Twitter drive users to distraction. Don’t make it easier for yours to get lost.
Economy of Language for Translations
Terse phrasing can be of massive help when you’re interpreting content for new audiences. Important details often get lost in translation. Try this three-step process to make sure your crucial tidbits survive the journey:
- Edit your content before you start the translation process. Use the economy of language principles above to eliminate anything unneeded.
- Communicate with your translator. Let them know how important it is to be concise. If possible, show them examples of marketing and other content that you feel gets the job done as briefly as possible.
- Edit the final result to make it less repetitive. You might want to hire a second translator or a native speaker to be your reviewer.
Economy of language isn’t easy to maintain if you’re working in an unfamiliar language. You might cut something out, believing that it doesn’t add value, only to discover it was critical to the meaning. Hiring a human translator is always a smart move since they might be able to use expressions and other stand-ins that reduce the word count.
Remember that you don’t need a lot of text to say big things. Even though English has around one million words, most native speakers only know 20,000 to 40,000.
This is similar to the way other languages work. For instance, in Japanese, there are somewhere in the neighborhood of 50,000 kanji characters. To be fluent, you only need to know about 2,000.
Making Sure the Gist Matches
If you’ve been following along, you’ll now have two document versions. Compare how they match up. Ask yourself:
- Do the pieces have the same fundamental meaning?
- Do they have the same feel or vibe?
- If ideas were omitted, did the changes detract from the understanding? Put yourself in the shoes of someone who lacks your insider knowledge on the topic.
Your two drafts don’t have to be exactly equivalent, but they should be close. Since most writing is supposed to accomplish a specific goal, you want to be certain you’re still hitting the mark.
Adding Content Isn’t Necessarily Bad
But wait! Isn’t that contradictory to the whole economy of language idea?
Not necessarily. It’s not unheard of for economy-minded editors to add new ideas. The key is to ensure these changes explain the same concepts with fewer words.
Imagine that you wrote a long article about how your computer factory created its advanced motherboards. Why go through every step of the process in mind-numbing detail? Doing so would probably bore all but the most technical readers, so keep it light.
In the section on how CPUs work, you might use a metaphor, such as “the CPU is the brain of the computer.” This gets the point across without being too technical or painfully long. It also reduces the amount of complex language you’d need to use in a single piece of content.
Use Rich Media and Split Things Up.
The modern web makes it pretty easy to observe the economy of language and profit. Going back to the computer factory example, you might not want to eliminate your entire CPU explainer for a simple metaphor. After all, you probably worked very hard to break your big ideas down in layman’s terms.
Using a smart linking strategy lets readers choose how involved they want to be. Since more casual viewers don’t have to scroll through everything at once, they’re more likely to stick around.
When might this be a wise idea? Listen to reader feedback to get a feel for what your audience appreciates. Here are a few situations that illustrate the point:
- Technical businesses might benefit from building trust by showing they know what they’re talking about. These sources also make liberal use of pop-ups and interactive rollover widgets to provide explainers and juicy details.
- Entertainment content that thrives on keeping readers on-page can link to the most-requested topics. Another smart language-economy strategy might be to include related articles in a website sidebar.
- Physical publications, like magazines and ads, commonly use QR code links to keep users involved even as they jump across different marketing channels. This kind of cross-channel promotion is also a helpful solution for tracking user engagement.
Creating a More Economical Content Strategy
Teachers who rely on the economy of language principles often do so in extremely precise ways. You don’t need to go as far as creating a lesson plan or starting a marketing writer’s boot camp, but you might try
- Writing down some brand voice and tone guidelines for your content creators. This simple trick can help you avoid typical length, pacing, and style issues. For example, many brand managers ask their writers and translators not to use the passive voice and favor active, direct phrasing.
- Adding tracking metrics to your online content. For instance, if you had a blog, you might keep tabs on how many people read to the end of your posts. You could also track which posts, topics, and presentation formats hold interest the longest.
- Planning a comprehensive content strategy. It’s a lot easier to keep individual pieces short when you know you’re going to hit essential topics later. That way, you won’t feel forced to pack everything into a single, rambling post.
Use Your Language Skills Economically
No matter what language you’re working in, you can get lots done with fewer words. Being to the point and skipping marketing fluff both improve your odds of connecting with audiences. Create a regular content creation and translation process that leaves room for errors, edits, and feedback. You’ll find it a lot easier to observe the economy of language rules faithfully.
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