If you want to create more powerful, converting content, hear this. According to one little-known communication genius, sentences should contain less than this many words on average. Go past this number, he says, and you risk confusion. Even more, he says it’s not just the word counts, but the _______ you convey. (I’ll reveal the secret in a moment!)
Interested? You should be! That’s because this advice was given by one of the most obscure… but oft-recommended… marketing geniuses of our time.
His name? Eugene Schwartz. Born in 1927, his 1995 New York Times obituary calls him an “art collector”, yet briefly spends a few lines to cover his successes in direct response advertising and copywriting, saying,
An advertising copywriter whose specialty was direct-mail campaigns, Mr. Schwartz was the author of 10 books, including “Breakthrough Advertising” and “The Brilliance Breakthrough.” He wrote some of the most celebrated lines in direct-mail advertising, such as “Give Me 15 Minutes and I’ll Give You a Super-Power Memory,” which launched the first book of the memory expert Harry Lorraine.New York Times, “Eugene Schwartz, 68, Modern-Art Collector, Dies”
It is that first book, Breakthrough Advertising, for which he is most famous. The marketing book was so coveted and rare that it was stolen from every library in America save the Library of Congress. Even now, you can only obtain new copies if you’re willing to pay $125.
But that’s not the book I’m talking about today. (Although I highly recommend its purchase.)
The book I’m referring to is that second quoted book, The Brilliance Breakthrough. Also available from Kurtz, this book doesn’t talk so much about copy but about communicating effectively. The 300-page book contains 2 parts and 16 chapters, each chapter ending in an exercise for application.
I admit, it’s hard work doing what he recommends. Especially nowadays where writing has become vague and passive and clear communication seems to be going the way of the dodo. Like lemmings falling off a cliff, so many writers write verbose – but bland – sentences.
If that’s you – have no fear! This book will fix that.
The basic premise of the work is to simplify grammar down to understandable concepts that aid in helping writers create clearer, more powerful sentences. According to Schwartz,
- There exist two main parts of grammar: picture words and connecting words
- A sentence is merely a unit of thought we share with another person
- People understand sentences by making pictures in their mind; a clear sentence will deliver a clear picture to the reader.
- Your reader/listener only understands one idea at a time. Your job is to make seeing the image easier.
- A sentence could have up to ten words (or more!) to tell the story-images… but only as few as necessary.
- Sentences should contain complete images.
As Eugene Schwartz says, “A sentence needs to have only enough words to be understood. And no more. Only enough to be understood” (p.97).
He also says, “Make each word image in that sentence less than ten words, and make it complete” (p. 71).
In the rest of the book, Schwartz then goes on to discuss how to link up sentences so they can be understood, idea by idea.
He also covers:
- How to write simply
- How to avoid monotony
- How to use clarity to build “wit, symbolism, and suspence”
- How to elaborate clearly
- How to say or write so you’re quotable and “unforgettable”
- How to generate quotable sentences in your writing
- How to build in implication
- And finally, he ends with, “Other Sentence Strengtheners”
All this to say, obviously I recommend this book. I’m still going through it myself, and find Schwartz’s recommendations highly valuable and actionable.
Yet if you don’t want to shell out hundreds for books, then you’ll do well just by remembering that:
- Sentences convey ideas
- Ideas are translated into pictures in the mind of your reader/listener,
- Only one idea can be understood at a time.
Everything else builds on those core principles.