Honey Copy

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Riffs on marketing, writing, creativity and life ––

The daring pursuit of crafting compelling short sentences.

short sentences

“Mrs. Dalloway said she would buy the flowers herself.”

At Honey Copy, my creative writing shop that grows brands with pretty words, I’ll often look to the past for inspiration.

You just read one of the greatest short sentences of all time. It was written by Virginia Woolf in perhaps her loveliest work, Mrs. Dalloway.

It’s short. It’s simple. It’s sweet.

In this nine word sentence, Woolf was able to not only set a scene for an entire novel but leave the reader wondering…

Who is Mrs. Dalloway?

Why is she buying flowers for herself?

Who didn’t buy them for her?

In addition to this curiosity the sentence sparks in the reader, it also achieves something else –– it builds character.

It takes a very specific type of woman to go out and buy flowers for herself (or perhaps someone else) and the reader is already beginning to piece together the character of Mrs. Dalloway before ever reading sentence number two.

Virginia Woolf, one of the greatest writers of all time, understood the power of a compelling short sentence.

But she wasn’t the only one…

“Her legs swing complete afternoons away.”

Jill Eisenstadt wrote that short sentence in From Rockaway.

“So it goes.”

The great Kurt Vonnegut sprinkled that one throughout his iconic war novel, Slaughterhouse-Five.

“Isn’t it pretty to think so?”

Ernest Hemingway fired off that gem in his heart-wrenching love story, The Sun Also Rises.

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, novelists are far better writers than even the greatest of copywriters and business writers, so if there is an element in their writing that comes up again and again… we must explore it, study it and apply it.

You met the queen, now meet the king of short sentences.

In Hemingway’s memoir, A Moveable Feast, the king of the short sentence writes about how he would overcome writer’s block.

The excerpt is lovely, written in the classic Hemingway prose and it’s applicable to not just writers who feel their pens are stuck in concrete but marketers, copywriters, entrepreneurs and snow cone vendors looking to write short sentences that sell.

In fact, it serves as the perfect jumping off point for today’s discussion…

“Sometimes when I was starting a new story and I could not get it going, I would sit in front of the fire and squeeze the peel of the little oranges into the edge of the flame and watch the sputter of blue that they made. I would stand and look out over the roofs of Paris and think, "Do not worry. You have always written before and you will write now. All you have to do is write one true sentence. Write the truest sentence that you know."

Write the truest sentence that you know.

Repeat that a few times in your head, before you continue.

Business and marketing writing today is littered with buzzwords, jargon and long-windedness. I’d argue it’s the world’s worst writing outside the shit we find in high school textbooks and perhaps instruction manuals.

Marketers are notorious for using business speak that no one (but those directly in their industry) understand. This coupled with long-windedness makes for just shitty writing.

All of this could be solved if marketers heeded Hemingway’s advice –– write the truest sentence you know.

Why? Because at the core of all marketing communication, is the sentence.

Email subject lines? A sentence.

Article titles? A sentence.

Sales page headlines? A sentence.

Billboard slogans? A sentence.

Paid Facebook & Instagram ads? A sentence.

When Hemingway refers to the truest sentence he is referring to a damn good sentence, a thoughtful sentence, a powerful sentence, a compelling sentence.

He used this approach to make the massive task of slaying the dragon that is writing a novel approachable, doable, achievable.

Instead of attempting to write the entire novel, he took a stab at writing just one true sentence –– to chop off one claw from the dragon versus going for the head.

Marketers are guilty of trying to say everything versus trying to just say something really really well. As a result, they write copy that reads on forever without actually saying anything at all.

Hemingway was exceptional at not just writing true sentences but true short sentences. This allowed him to write in such a way that was both powerful and easily understandable.

That’s a dangerous combination when applied to marketing…

Which speaking of, we’ve looked at some short sentences in literature. Now, let’s take a look at some short sentences in marketing.

21 Compelling short sentences in marketing.

Just as Virginia Woolf and Ernest Hemingway used both true and short sentences to snatch up their reader’s attention, destroy writer’s block and write in such a way that was easily digestible… marketers can use true short sentences to sell their products and services.

Below, you will find some examples of compelling short sentences in marketing. You’ll find everything from headlines, to sub-headlines, to slogans and even product copy.

  1. Honey Copy –– Honey Copy is a creative writing shop that grows brands with pretty words.

  2. Gumroad –– Gumroad helps creators do more of what they love.

  3. Slack –– Millions of people around the world have already made Slack the place where their work happens.

  4. Slack (again) –– Several people are typing.

  5. Basecamp –– We’ve been expecting you.

  6. Signal v. Noise –– Strong opinions and shared thoughts on design, business and tech by the makers (and friends) of basecamp.

  7. Nike –– Just do it.

  8. AppSumo –– Friends don’t let friends pay full price.

  9. Casper –– Who knew mattress shopping could be so dreamy?

  10. Harry’s –– You deserve a great shave at a fair price.

  11. Shopify –– Build your business.

  12. Shopify (again) –– You’ve got the will. We’ve got the way.

  13. Medium –– A place to read and write big ideas and important stories.

  14. Medium (again) –– Where words matter.

  15. Ghost –– Ghost is a fully open source, adaptable platform for building and running a modern online publication.

  16. Buffer –– Save time managing social media for your business.

  17. Predictive Index –– We surveyed 156 CEO’s and uncovered some fascinating trends.

  18. AngelList –– Where the world meets startups.

  19. Unsplash –– Beautiful, free photos.

  20. Wunder Capital –– Do well and do good.

  21. Spotify –– Music for everyone.

Now, those are all lovely, and ravishing, and compelling and curiosity-tugging… but how on Earth does one go about writing a short sentence like the ones above?

How to write short sentences that sell?

To begin, let’s talk about size –– size matters. While the above sentences were made up of everything from headlines, sub-headlines, slogans and even product copy… they averaged 7.7 words apiece. We’ll go ahead and call it eight.

I think a great rule of thumb for writing a short sentence is keeping them at ten words or under. If you can cut the sentence down to eight words, you’re getting somewhere. With that said, the sentence I wrote for Honey Copy is thirteen words. So, know the rule but be prepared to break the rule.

Capeesh?

Now, in addition to this ten-word limit, you’ll also notice the above sentences are made up primarily of one and two syllable words.

Writing a short sentence isn’t just about word count but also the size of the words. A sentence made up of three and four syllable words isn’t a short sentence at all… it reads more like a novel.

Keep your sentences tight. If you can keep them tight they’ll read punchier and with more brevity and flare. Not to mention, they’ll be easier to understand.

A simple way to tighten up your sentences is to cut and squeeze.

Write out a marketing message you’d like to share with your customers and give yourself as many sentences as you want to do so. Then, once you’ve written out this marketing message, cut and squeeze.

For example, let’s pretend we are writing a headline for one of the many mattress-in-a-box companies littering the internet today. We’re looking to come up with a headline for our about us page.

We decide to write the following sentences…

Our ridiculously comfortable mattresses are expertly constructed in a laboratory located in the United States and are crafted from the most extraordinary materials planet Earth has to offer. Our team is made up of world-renowned sleep engineers, nap-addicts and mattress snobs and together we are changing the way people sleep one incredible bed at a time.

Now, let’s first cut this sentence. Let’s remove the fat from it. I’m going to bold the words I think we should keep…

Our ridiculously comfortable mattresses are expertly constructed in a laboratory located in the United States and are crafted from the most extraordinary materials planet Earth has to offer. Our team is made up of world-renowned sleep engineers, nap-addicts and mattress snobs and together we are changing the way people sleep one incredible bed at a time.

Okay, so now our sentences read as follows…

Our mattresses are constructed in a laboratory in the United States and are crafted from the most extraordinary materials planet Earth has to offer. Our team is made up of sleep engineers and nap addicts, together we are changing the way people sleep.

We’ve cut the words, now we need to squeeze them. We do this by exchanging them for shorter words and perhaps cutting out a few more that don’t belong. The finished product would look something like…

Our sleep engineers and nap addicts are crafting sounder sleep.

Okay, now we are getting somewhere. While it’s not perfect, the above sentence is true and it is short.

What else?

Well, I can’t give away all my secrets here… to learn how to write short sentences and write them well… I’d recommend you take a look at my top-secret copywriting guide: How to write words that sell like a Florida Snow Cone Vendor on the hottest day of the year.

Or, I could always write them for you, too.

By Cole Schafer.


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Cole Schafer