Straight to the point: the Miniskirt theory of writing

If you want to make a point in writing, make sure you nail the “so what” in your first 62 words. Readers won’t give you much time, especially online. It’s much easier and more effective to work with that reality than whine about it.

(See? That was just 44 words.)

Why am I telling you this? At this weekend’s Thin Air Summit, a great new media event in Denver, I gave a session on writing called Blogging: Every Word Counts. (Video should be online soon.)

Apparently, keynoter Jeremiah Owyang was intrigued by one point I made, which he tweeted:

@agahran suggests that you have to make your point on online content within the first 62 words. Are you that disciplined?”

Thanks, Jeremiah. Yes, it’s true, I did say that. I know it sounds draconian, but here’s my rationale…

  1. Typical reading speed: 250 words per minute
  2. Amount of time a reader will grant you to demonstrate value (that is, after your headline has proved interesting, and if you’re lucky): 15 seconds (0.25 min)
  3. Number of words in which you need to make your most important point:
    250 x 0.25 = 62.5

…So call it 62 words.

You don’t have to stop there, of course. After you quickly convey your main “so what,” you can go on to elaborate and support your point. Just don’t go overboard. People may read further. But even if they don’t, they will have gotten some demonstrable value even from that brief encounter with you — maybe enough to recommend or link to your writing, or to keep checking you out, or to bookmark it and read it when they have more time.

Brevity -- and attitude -- can work for you.

Brevity -- and attitude -- can work for you. (Source: Tu Foto, via Flickr, CC license)

As Metzger Associates president Doyle Albee quipped at my session:

“Good writing should be like a skirt: Long enough to cover subject, but short enough to stay interesting.”

(Needless to say, Albee’s remark was immediately tweeted and launched a salacious conference meme, during which I may have promised I’d wear a miniskirt and fishnet stockings to the next Thin Air Summit. Be forewarned.)

As always, some smart folks disagree with me. My friend, mentor, and occasional verbal sparring partner Dave Taylor was at the session and appeared to disagree with my advice. He said that more educated, intelligent readers prefer longer, more thoughtful and eloquent content. He may be right. Reader preferences vary. If you think longer-form content might work better with your readers, experiment.

However, I still firmly believe that even educated, intelligent people who enjoy longer-form content also are caught in the attention crash and tend to do a fair amount of media snacking — phenomena that Owyang discussed in his Thin Air Summit presentation, The Future of Media in the Social Era:

What do you think? Is 62 words too tight or just right to really make a point? Please comment below.

15 thoughts on Straight to the point: the Miniskirt theory of writing

  1. What was it called it in middle school? A thesis statement? The idea was to know where you’re going and why all in one sentence. One blog that I enjoy occasionally but rarely read in full has epic posts. Extremely informative posts, but they fall under tl;dr. That there’s now a ‘Too Long; Didn’t Read’ abbreviation is kind of boggling, but it’s slapped all over posts that are long, rambling, and don’t seem to follow the 62-word point idea.

    Also, when your feed aggregate (or whatever it’s called now) only displays the first 62 words or so as a snip, then it’s even more important to make an interesting point there so people know if they want to know more.

    Besides, it’s just good writing practice to be to the point.

  2. I think it’s a good guideline, but whether people will read depends on so much more. 62 words of garbage will not be any more effective than 400 words of something your user really cares about.

  3. For me personally, I disagree with the “62” rule. That would mean that anytime an average person is surfing the information highway, they look at an interesting entry and are allocating 62 words of interest.
    But, from my experience, and those of my friends, you didn’t take into account the factor of purpose. Many times people aren’t just surfing the web or a series of topics. Instead, what they’re doing, is searching for something specific.
    What happens then, could be equated this way:

    (62)G^2= T

    For every true ’62’ case, there are people who aren’t just surfing the web, but looking for something specific. The higher the number of specific information(G) that they are looking for, the higher an increase in the amount of Total Amount of Words Read(T).

    I see this happen in both intelligent and inept people. It doesn’t have to do with reading level, so much so as whether the content being provided is answering their question the way they understand it. (which is another issue altogether)

  4. Upper left kiddo! that’s where the (overwhelmed) eye starts and before long…..the average consumer is outta there. Just think, everyone has increasing demands on brain cells as all these exciting toys emerge, get in (with your point) get out.
    Just saying,
    Viki
    LuluMom

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  7. Amy, I thought you were dead on when you presented the 62-word discipline at the Thin Air Summit. It’s not that people will ONLY read the first 62 words of an entry, it’s that people will use that first handful of words to assess WHETHER OR NOT to read the rest of the entry. Those better be the right words to hook them or they will move on.

    And, by the way, the secret of a good miniskirt is that it attract attention to where you want it to attract attention without (ahem) skirting around the point.

    Elizabeth
    RecipesForPublicity

  8. Pingback: The Miniskirt Theory of Writing for the Web | Recipes for Publicity

  9. I believe that the longer content pieces still need a good introduction, which I don’t always succeed in writing. A good introduction is exactly what you’ve covered, short enough to be “snacked” on and robust enough to be beneficial. After you give them that taste, the reader can make an educated decision to read on, or not.

  10. It sounds like what you are writing in the first 62 words is an effective summary or abstract of the subject under discussion. This is the info that is often under a news headline on news sites. Structured authoring for technical writing in the DITA XML environment would call this the Topic summary. The topic summary is what gets included in introductory sections or is used to build high level documents.

  11. Your point about the miniskirt as mentioned by Doyle Albee is a good attention grabber.

    Steven Egan and Elizabeth both have a point, a good introduction is needed whilst some people may in fact decide right then if they wish to go on or not.

    So if I manage a short intro like here: http://commetrics.com/?p=89 the topic might still require some words to explain. So after you got my attention and I have read the 62 words, many readers will still skim the text instead of reading it word for word. Hence, using bullets and short sentences as well as paragraphs makes it easier on the reader….. trying to scan over the text.

    Finally, maybe less frequent posts (once a week) and taking all the above into consideration still means you have to make sure you add value for your targeted audience. So if you are a corporate blogger (e.g., Fortune 500) you have to make sure that your target audience (e.g., product users or investors) find your posts relevant and additing value as explained here http://howto.commetrics.com/?page_id=127

    Thanks for this nice post. Urs

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