Writing and the Art of Omission
I love words. I’ve wanted to be a writer for as long as I can remember. In seventh grade, my World Cultures teacher gave me an A+ on a research paper and noted in the margin, “You write better than most kids.” Maybe it was that affirmation that led to my dream. Some thirty years later, I find myself grateful every day that I get to write as my profession.
My love of words led me to become a long-form, thought leadership writer. That means I get the space to deep dive into ideas. Interviewing subject matter experts (SMEs) and finding ways to translate their intricate knowledge into papers, guides, or reports that are consumable and accessible for lay audiences is part of the fun. I can take their technical ideas and, through words, nudge people into action by exploring how new innovations can help meaningfully solve both business and societal challenges.
It’s often like solving a puzzle to retain the details various SMEs deem critical and also deliver something that will pass PR, marketing, and legal review — all while making sure it’s still a piece everyday folks are excited to read. All those cooks in the kitchen paired with my innate love of words can result in pretty high word counts. My Wheels Up managing editor will confirm it’s the norm for me to turn in drafts longer than what the creative brief prescribes. In thought leadership writing, this can be a good thing.
The writing in this type of top-of-the-funnel, discovery-stage asset serves to establish an organization’s credibility and authority in a field and should offer something truly unique, educational, or valuable to the reader. In this instance “content is king,” as first noted by Microsoft founder Bill Gates in 1996. Quality content is about the reader, not the author. It builds trust, provides a foundation for strategically nurturing an engaged audience, and allows any-sized business to take charge of the discussion.
There are other times in content marketing when it makes sense to cut back, aligning the purpose of a piece with the platform it’s delivered on and the audience’s attention span in that space. At Wheels Up, we do give guidance about the sweet spot of word counts and asset lengths:
Blogs: 300 - 500 words (under a 10-minute read)
Bylined articles: 700 – 1,000 words
Elevator pitch: 25 – 50 words
Press release boilerplate: 80 words
Nurture emails: 150 - 300 words
(“The Complete Guide to Content Marketing for Startups” contains a wealth of detailed and proven recommendations for those who wish to learn more.)
Cutting ambitiously authored content to get to ideal numbers for those smaller assets is hard. As John McPhee (author of the 40,000-word manuscript for “Oranges”) wrote in The New Yorker in “Omission: Choosing What to Leave Out,” “Writing is selection. From the first word of the first sentence in an actual composition, the writer is choosing, selecting, and deciding (most importantly) what to leave out.”
When McPhee described writing for Time, he noted the process by which editors would tell writers to “Green 5,” or “Green 8,” meaning the writer was to mark five or eight expendable lines in green pencil. That way the layout team could cut or keep the lines depending on what fit in the allotted print space. “Groan as much as you liked,” he noted, “you had to green nearly all your pieces, and greening was a craft in itself – studying your completed and approved product, your ‘finished’ piece, to see what could be left out.”
I think about that term a lot: greening. It somehow makes the delete key seem less murderous and more responsible. It was William Faulkner who said of the editing process, “In writing, you must kill all your darlings.” Greening, by contrast, seems something fresh, done for the greater good.
Passion and Help
When you’re passionate about your product, service, or solution, the tendency is to want to put all the good words and phrases and thoughts into your content. It’s supremely difficult to leave those things on the table. That’s where your Wheels Up writers and editors come into play. We know when to allow a piece the space it needs, and when brevity will work better for achieving your goals. We share your passion for your innovative products and services and are there to help you through drafting, editing, and greening. We can even be clever in creating a long-form piece with shorter derivatives for various platforms.
Making a living from hitting just the right tone, providing value, achieving buy-in from all stakeholders, and engaging an audience – all in a story – is a great joy every day. I am thrilled to be able to do it for our Wheels Up clients.