Searchmetrics “Changes cannot be saved” error message

You know the drill. You encounter a problem with a popular app, and a quick search reveals someone else has had the same issue. That solves it. So when I was working on a document in Searchmetrics, a massive SEO tool, and this kept popping up …

Searchmetrics error message

… I was surprised to see not a single mention of the issue anywhere. Very strange.

The issue is in Searchmetrics Content Manager, within Content Experience. It allows you to write SEO-friendly copy by cross-referencing yours with existing content covering the same subject. The full text is:

Changes cannot be saved to an outdated version of the content. Please refresh the page to view the latest version first.

Error message, Chrome browser, Searchmetrics, Windows 10

Well, I finally got to the bottom of it, and it turned out to be down to an annoying habit of mine that I can’t shake off.

Once, back in the day, I lost about two hours’ worth of edits on a PDF when Acrobat crashed. Since then, I have instinctively pressed Ctrl+S (quick save on Windows) all the time. I mean, I’m talking after every sentence. It’s fine with MS Word and Acrobat, as they’re local files running on an application on your computer. But when you’re working on an online content management tool (such as Searchmetrics Content Manager or Google Docs), the only local bit is your own browser.

So when I’m working on a document within a browser and I do a quick save, it wants to save the content of the browser page (essentially the HTML). That can throw a bit of a wobbler when some of the “content” is an input box that you’re working on. I’ve done it plenty of times with Google Docs and it doesn’t seem to make any difference, but Searchmetrics doesn’t like it. Hence the error message.

So, the simple solution is:

Don’t quick save documents on Searchmetrics Content Manager!

As soon as I stopped quick saving, the issue ceased. Sure, I had to tie my left arm behind my back, but since I always type with one finger anyway, it wasn’t a problem. Incidentally, I don’t know if this happens with any other browser, or with iOS, but if you’re getting that message, maybe give this a try – if you can break the habit of a lifetime, that is.

My top twelve English corrections

English is always changing, so today’s common corrections can easily become tomorrow’s accepted forms. It’s precisely how we’ve arrived at where we are now. But there’s a core to the purpose of any language, and that is that we all understand it so we can communicate. We accept variations from the mean, but stray too far and meaning can change. Some people say we don’t need apostrophes as the meaning is always obvious from the context. I’d say that’s true 99% of the time, but there are always borderline cases where it can cause confusion, so it’s better to have a rule and accept that it might sometimes be disobeyed (wilfully or erroneously) than to simply abandon the rule altogether.

You also can’t ignore the important factors of professionalism and attention to detail. Whether you’re writing for a public audience or for business, there will be a percentage of readers who will be turned off by slapdash writing, but no benefit at all for littering text with errors. Over an entire readership, the net result of error-strewn copy will be negative.

So how can you start to improve your copywriting and stop turning off the pedants among your readers? One way is to pick off the low-hanging fruit: common errors. Good proofreaders prick up their eyes (which is definitely not a made-up idiom) when they encounter certain things because they instinctively know there’s a good chance that there could be something wrong. Oftentimes, they also happen to be things that proofreaders overlook if they aren’t fully focused, so experience counts too. Here’s my list of things that have, over the years, had me reaching for my red pen and highlighting those PDFs.

“in regards to”

We might finish an email with “regards” (or “kind regards” if you want someone to pay you), but when you mean “related to” there’s only one regard given, i.e. “in regard to”. 

Comma splices

Separate clauses being linked with a comma is called a comma splice. “Splice” might sound like “slice” but it really means the opposite: joining together. Film editors splice scenes together, for example. This sentence contains a comma splice, it is two separate clauses. There are some easy ways to fix it, however. You can usually swap the comma for a semicolon, and sometimes a colon works. Alternatively, you can insert a conjunction (so, and, butor etc.) or make the clauses into two sentences with a full stop and a capital.

Possessive plurals (childrens’, womens’)

Possessive plurals have the apostrophe after the s, so we get phrases like cars’ horns, countries’ flags and birds’ nests. But some words have plurality built in, such as women, children, mice, stadia, fungi and sheep. In those cases you have to be careful if pluralising them, and it’s quite common to see childrens’, womens’ and mens’ (and less commonly the other pluralised words when used as possessives). Just put your brain into 5th gear when you come across them as a writer or an editor, as it’s surprising how often this one slips in. (It should be children’s, women’s, men’s, stadia’s, fungi’s and sheep’s, by the way.)

Inconsistency of -ise and -ize spellings

This one’s probably quite forgivable because neither is wrong in itself (it’s a style thing), but there should be consistency throughout the document once you’ve plumped for one or the other. Note that some words never have an -ize ending – think analyse, advertise, advise, supervise, merchandise and surprise, for example.

“led, lead”

Another very common one here: led is the past participle of lead, meaning to guide, direct or manage something or someone. The word spelt “lead” has a second meaning, too. It’s a metal, and I think this is where confusion creeps in. Because the metal is pronounced “led” rather than “leed”, it probably accounts for the number of times I see phrases such as “She lead the the UK from 1979 to 1990” which sounds right in the head, but is wrong on paper.

“lose, loose”

This one seems to have exploded since people were allowed to contribute to chat forums and social media, but it’s quite surprising how often “loose” (free, untied, slack) is confused with “lose” (mislay, be defeated). The error can also infect the comparative adjective “looser” and the noun “loser”, and I know because although I’m frequently called both, I’m sure I’m only one of them. 

“choose, chose”

A simple slip of the finger on the keyboard that spell checkers might overlook is the “choose” and “chose” error. “Chose” is the past tense of “choose” in the absence of a word “choosed”, so just keep your beady eye on that one.

“tough, trough, though, thought, through, thorough”

I read that heading three times to make sure I hadn’t typed one of the words twice. They all have very different meanings but are all spelt similarly, and it’s incredibly easy to get these wrong. Whenever you encounter any of these words, check it throughly, tough even if you though you would have spotted an error, it’s a lot thougher than you would have throught. Just in case you’re unsure of the differences:

  • tough: difficult, hard-wearing
  • trough: ditch, low point in graph, animal/politician feeding device
  • though: despite
  • thought: notion (n), past tense of “think” (v)
  • through: via, during
  • thorough: complete, careful

“and” in lists

When you’re listing things that contain the word “and”, be very careful, as that “and” can often become the grammatical “and” in the sentence. “We went to see Bonny and Clyde, Transformers, Pulp Fiction, The Cook, the Thief, His Wife and Her Lover” is wrong. “We went to see Bonny and Clyde, Transformers, Pulp Fiction and The Cook, the Thief, His Wife and Her Lover” is correct. There could be borderline cases such as “The company invested £200,000 in uniforms, a new canteen, research and development”. In most cases “research and development” would be one item in the list, so there could be a missing “and” there too. Sometimes it’s best to change the order of the listed items if you can, as it can make everything clearer.

Colons/semicolons before bullet lists

Semicolons shouldn’t lead into a bullet list; it should only ever be a colon.

“between x to y”

Always look out for things  like “between 40 to 50 years ago” or “between £60–100 million”. This should always be “and” between this and that. 

“there’s, there are”

This one is forgivable in speech, but is creeping into written English at an alarming rate. “There’s plenty of reasons to love this city” and “there’s five people reading this blog – I’d better upgrade my server” are examples. In each case, a plural is being treated as a singular.

$2,000 dollars (£1,685 pounds)

It’s quite a common one this, and it’s easy to see how it happens when you consider the different ways amounts of money are written and spoken. Obviously you don’t need to include the currency symbol and to spell it out, so it’s just one to look out for. My senses always tingle when I see a currency spelt out, and it is proved correct repeatedly. 

Bonus tip: beware of currencies taking capital letters, too – it’s another very common mistake, especially with euros, probably because we’re so used to the spelling of “Europe” and “European”.

Not counting specifically enumerated lists of things properly

We all have to write lists nowadays, but for the love of Apollo, please make sure the number of entries matches the promised number. It isn’t too much to ask.

What page am I on in Google Docs?

If you’re used to using Microsoft Word and glancing down to the bottom of the screen to see where you’re up to on a document, you’ll know how simple and intuitive it is:

Similarly, with Adobe Acrobat, you just have a quick look at your dashboard to get the page number:

But when you’re on Google Docs, there is no such counter active on the screen. So how are you supposed to find out what page you’re on in a document? It’s not immediately obvious, but it’s simple when you know how. On desktop computers, you just hover the cursor over the scroll bar on the right to see this pop up:

And there you have it. You’ll also see the current page number in the same place if you use the scroll bar to move through the pages, but that’s not much use if you just want to see the number of the page you’re working on.

On mobile devices using Google Drive, you’ll also see the page number when you press or move the scroll bar, along with headings. However, this will only work if you’re in “Print layout” (settings > Print layout (toggle)). If Print layout is off, the text will be one long stream without page numbers.

Why do I need to know the page number?

It’s handy to know where you’re up to if you’re proofing or editing a document, especially if you’re working against the clock or someone needs to know how far along the document you’ve got, and how much more time you estimate you’ll need.

It’s also useful if you want to refer someone else to a specific point in the document, or compile a list of pages that need attention. Be careful, though – if you make an edit, it can make the whole document past that point re-flow, and change the pagination throughout the rest of the document. Pro tip: to avoid this, work through the comments backwards, so nothing you can do will affect the previous pages.

Why doesn’t Google Docs show the page number automatically?

If you’re working on a document, the page numbers don’t tend to be all that important until the work is published, and it will probably go through many edits and amends, and have images, title pages, notes and all sorts of material inserted into it before it’s published. Everything you do changes the position words appear on in any page, and you can easily push or pull paragraphs onto the next or previous page by making a correction several pages earlier. That’s why indexing and cross-referencing are among the final tasks a book or other document goes through before it goes to press.

Useful though it is as a collaborative work tool, Google Docs is not a professional typesetting suite like Adobe InDesign or QuarkXPress. It’s just for getting words, images and ideas on the page, and if the material is destined for pro publishing, it will almost certainly go through a pro suite for typesetting and printing.

Should “however” have a comma after it at the start of a sentence?

It’s a debate that can split editors and writers: which of the following is right?

However some people disagreed with the move.

or

However, some people disagreed with the move.

For me, it would always be the second option, for two reasons.

First, the comma imitates the natural way that the sentence would be vocalised – there would always be a small pause to indicate that the following part was the main substance of the sentence.

And second, “however” has another meaning, namely “in whatever way”, for example “However you look at it, it’s a bad idea.” For this reason alone it’s always worth putting the comma after “However” because good writing is always about clarity, and ensuring readers never have to read a sentence twice to understand it. Consider this sentence:

However you like your coffee without milk, so I’ll leave it black.

I bet when you started reading that sentence in your mind, you were thinking about the way the person liked their coffee, but then it unfolded differently. In contrast,

However, you like your coffee without milk, so I’ll leave it black.

is unambiguous.

However you look at it, where “however” is used to mean “despite this” at the start of a sentence, it’s best to follow it with a comma.

Google my Busy-ness

Regular blogging is, we are told, essential for gaining and maintaining search ranking. Not only are we providing more content to help the search engines to find us; we are also showing we’re still a going concern, and talking about our work and our industries.

But what happens when we’re just too busy to maintain a blog? It’s something that never really occurred to me when I was re-starting my freelance career after a spell in employment. I did have time on my hands to think up blog ideas, research them, write and edit them, add images and submit to my Google my Business page.

Then I got super-busy.

Now, being busy is obviously a good thing. It shows something’s working, I’m being discovered in my niche and there’s a trickle of returning clients and new openings keeping things ticking over. But there’s a nagging doubt at the back of the mind: how can I blog when I’m too busy to blog?

Evolution of foxes and rabbits
Foxes and Rabbits (Psion, 1982)

As a self-sustaining online business, that’s like a shop being too busy to hire staff. As soon as one leaves, you’re short-handed, your customers get fed up of long queues and start going to other shops, and it’s the beginning of the end.

Foxes and rabbits

What we have is a system not unlike the “foxes and rabbits” scenario. The more rabbits there are, the more food there is for foxes. So the fox population goes up, which leads to a natural cull of rabbits. But that leaves hungry (read: dead) foxes, which lets the rabbit population start to grow again, and the cycle continues.

It’s Monday morning and for the first time in about three months, I haven’t got a job to do. As someone brought up during the mass foxes and rabbits hysteria of the 1980s, this is troubling. But on the plus side, I’ve got time to write a blog post.

Why it’s a problem for writers

Anyone who wants to maintain a Google profile knows they’ve got to blog. Luckily for most businesses, they can either source internal talent to write them, or outsource the task to freelancers, which I’m very glad about. After all, if you’re making lots of money, you can spend some of it to earn even more.

But when you’re a writer, your blog is also a kind of showcase, a portfolio. It would be very weird for me to start hiring writers to blog about writing, wouldn’t it?

… But luckily, you’re not a writer

The good thing for you is that you’re (probably) not a writer. If you are a writer, I can’t believe you’re reading this when you should be blogging.

But by wisely not being a writer, that means you’re in a position to hire one to build and maintain a professional quality blog with no loss of face.

And now, whenever you see I’ve written a blog, know that there just aren’t enough rabbits to eat, so please don’t make me overturn your bins. Get in touch.

Harry Potter in 500 words: the importance of including research time

Work takes time. Don't just look at the end product.

I’ll never forget the day a client asked me how long it would take to write 500 words of copy. I said it depends on the subject, but generally speaking, we’re talking somewhere in the range of 1 to 3 hours.

“Cool,” they replied. “I want you to summarise the Harry Potter books in 500 words. Three hours sounds about right.”

“Ah,” I replied. “I’ve never read any Harry Potter books.”

“Well, just skim through them and get me a 500-word summary by tomorrow. Otherwise we’ll drop you and find someone who can. Cheerio.”

The truth in fiction

Of course, none of that happened. But the inner truth is sound – the end product of a copywriting job is just the visible part of a much greater task. You can see instantly that reading the seven Harry Potter books’ 4,000 pages would be part of the job, not just the 500-word bit. Some companies get it; others don’t. But unless the time required to fully research a topic is granted in terms of deadline and fee, the end product won’t be very good.

There’s typically a learning curve with new clients. As I get to understand the company’s products, services, clients, tone of voice, goals and industry vocabulary, individual jobs start to take less time. But at the start of a relationship, when I know less than nothing about their business, I’m going to need more time to familiarise myself.

Legitimate concerns

So why not start off charging an amount that will be typical of later work? Why should the client pay for me to learn about its industry? Can’t I then use that knowledge to benefit their rivals if they hire me?

Those are all legitimate points, but unfortunately freelancers can’t take that chance. It’s not unknown for freelancers to have new prospects promising endless work that never materialises. If they’ve given a greatly reduced estimate on the basis of ongoing work, they’ll probably have put in many hours for very little pay.

Having a copywriter who knows all about the business and the industry is surely a good thing for any company. So realistically, it’s an expense that pays for itself over time (compared to constantly getting new copywriters in).

As for knowledge benefiting direct rivals, I’ve personally turned work down because it would mean working for two competing businesses, as I considered it ethically suspect. I’m sure most copywriters would feel the same way. And most clients wouldn’t be happy with private information potentially being useful to rivals, no matter how strong the NDA.

Relationships matter

All of the above emphasises the benefit of forming lasting relationships with your suppliers. They might occasionally make mistakes or produce work that the client isn’t enthused by, but that foundation has genuine value. Nurture it and reward it, and the collaboration will blossom.

Immersion

Immersion is the process of gaining an understanding of a new client. You’re immersing yourself in their business, letting it percolate through. You’re learning about products and services, USPs, picking up buzzwords, discovering news sources, getting to know the personnel. If the client intends to retain the services of a copywriter, or anyone in the marketing or PR industry, it pays to hire them for a few hours or days for immersion at the start of the relationship.

Think of immersion as a sort of boilerplate briefing, which applies to every future job, and you’ll see the benefits. Some of my clients and I have relationships measured in decades, and we’ve reached the stage where briefing individual jobs takes five minutes. Obviously if it’s a one-off job, it just needs to be briefed well, but that’s for a different blog post.

Specialist copywriters

Look around copywriters’ websites and you’ll often see writers who have specialisms. It could be fashion, engineering, travel, science, art, kids – anything that’s improved by learning and experience. Choosing a specialist copywriter is a good way of speeding up the immersion process. Ideally, the “being able to write” and “knowing your industry” boxes will come pre-ticked, so you can concentrate on your business’s USPs, voice, audience and personality. But don’t take expertise in your industry alone as justification for throwing them in at the deep end.

Ultimately, looking at their work and seeing how well they communicate your offering will end up being beneficial in the long term. If you’re selling a product to the public, there’s often a case for hiring someone without skin in the game, as they might be able to understand the public’s ignorance of the subject better than an expert would. It might not work so well with B2B, but as with any marketing operation, analyse their output and RoI to see how effective they are.

In short, using specialist copywriters is a very good idea, as long as they are competent and not complacent, and understand the audience. But some general copywriters will do a fantastic job too.

Success appreciates time

Work takes time. Don't just look at the end product.

Whether you’re building a relationship with a copywriter or hiring them for a one-off job, giving them enough time to do the job is a sound investment.

Tempting though it may be, don’t think of the size of the final product, think of the value of it. Don’t look at 500 words of copy and think “This took a day to write? I could knock this out in five minutes.”

A writer who has been given the time to get under your company’s skin and also understand its audience will produce harder-working copy. And if they’ve had a few days to leave the work alone and come back to it afresh, you’ll also see better copy. They’re probably already busy. Don’t make them rush more.

Don’t forget also that writers and designers will probably produce a few drafts before they send you their preferred one. It’s all part of the process of improvement, and it all takes time.

No matter how small the final product, give them time, pay for it, and everyone benefits.


Image: Yifan Liu

When does proofreading become copy editing, and editing copywriting?

All proofreaders have been asked to perform a quick proof, only to realise the job is more than correcting apostrophes. And all editors will have edited a job so much that a re-write would have been better. I’ve already covered the differences between proofreading and copy editing, but what happens in those grey areas?

When proofreading is actually copy editing

We established in the linked article that proofreading and copy editing are similar but different.

  1. Proofreading is quality assurance, whether that’s with reference to a style sheet or to a general sense of “rightness”.
  2. Copy editing allows for more flexibility, interpretation and re-drafting, while keeping the essence of the work intact.
  3. There’s a bit of editing in proofreading; and there’s a lot of proofreading in editing.
  4. Proofreading should be one of the last jobs before publishing; editing should be one of the first.

Difference number 3 is pertinent here. When you’re proofreading, you might find yourself doing a bit of editing. That is, you might see something that would look better written another way and change it (or query it). If the owner of the work says that’s OK, everyone’s happy. But if this happens more than once a paragraph, you could be getting close to copy editing territory.

If you’re finding yourself changing every sentence – not just correcting, but changing – then you are definitely doing the work of a copy editor. There are some proofreaders who will happily make sure all the full stops and possessive plurals are correct and be relaxed about the fact that the copy is not very readable. By the letter of the job description, nobody can complain. But if you’re one of those who simply can’t let confusing, inefficient copy get the green light, you should be prepared to upgrade your service.

When editing is actually copywriting

The difference between writing and editing is much starker. Copywriting takes ideas and concepts and makes fresh copy out of them. Editing might involve re-writing and re-ordering, but the ideas and concepts should already be formed into a logical story.

But what happens if you are given a job to copy edit, and after the first few paragraphs you realise it’s not really making sense, no matter how much you re-work it? That’s when it might be best tackled by a copywriter.

All might not be lost with the original work. It is no doubt the fruit of much knowledge, understanding and research, and will be an important resource for the re-write. But if it’s difficult to follow for its intended readers, no amount of swapping sentences around will help – it’s a copywriting job.

Why it matters

The main reason it matters is down to time. Copywriting 1,000 words might take 3 hours (or a week – it depends on the subject). Copy editing the first draft might take an hour, possibly two, depending on how much it needs changing. But to proofread 1,000 words should take no more than 20 minutes.

Time and money

Time taken has cost implications, in two ways.

First, whatever you’re charging per hour, if the job takes longer than you expected when you first accepted it, you’re either going to have to raise your fee or leave yourself out of pocket. Of course, some clients are happy to pay more if you take longer than quoted; but others aren’t.

Second, the rates for copywriting, editing and proofreading are all different. Copywriters tend to charge roughly twice the rate of a copywriter per hour, whereas proofreaders charge about 70–80% of the rate of a copy editor. If the client is only paying for proofing when you’re actually editing, you could (and should) be earning more.

It’s unlikely (in my experience at least) that the client is trying to rip you off. It’s more likely that they either don’t know the differences between the roles (and why should they?), or they don’t recognise how “bad” the work is from an outsider’s perspective.

Skills required

Above all, proofreading, copy editing and copywriting are all very different jobs. Just because someone is an accomplished proofreader with an eye for errors doesn’t mean they’d be good at editing. And someone who can re-jig a few sentence might not be good at research and structuring a story. It can be like a defender replacing an injured goalkeeper – they do similar jobs on the pitch, but something ain’t quite right.

It’s the same in-house

If this is all written from a freelancer’s perspective, that’s because it’s where I’m coming from right now. But even when you’re working in-house or at an agency, it’s just as important to know how long work will take and what skills are being used. Somebody is being billed for it, and your estimate will determine whether that’s your employer or their client.

Avoiding misunderstandings

The best way to avoid any conflicts is to skim over every job before you accept it and quote for it. Read a few random paragraphs and you’ll quickly get a feel for the quality of copy on offer. With the size of the job in mind and this instinct for how much work it needs, you should be able to come up with a quote you can stick with.

Whether or not you charge more per hour for the various services, an accurate quote will keep your client happy and ensure you’re paid for the time you put in.


Image: Amir-abbas Abdolali

Colons and semicolons: how to use them

Colons and semicolons are easy to confuse, and in my work as a proofreader and editor I see them misused daily. I’ll just go through the uses of each here.

Colon :

The colon’s main job is to join a statement with supporting facts. What comes after the colon cannot usually stand on its own – it needs its lead-up statement to justify it. For example:

There were three options: increase, decrease or remain the same.

Jackie had a brilliant plan: she would run away.

Colons can precede grammatically self-contained clauses or sentences, but that would be purely incidental (as in the second example).

Colons should always be used to introduce bullet lists and numbered lists if they are acting as through they are in a sentence. You could, for example, write “The bullet list below shows all the organisations involved.” That would not need a colon. However, if you’re using bullets to clarify a sentence with listed items separated by commas, you’d do something like this:

The countries involved were:

  • Brazil;
  • China;
  • Egypt; and
  • Australia.

Do not lead into a list with a semicolon. It’s incredibly common to see this done, but it’s wrong.

Semicolons make an appearance in that list, too. Although that’s how it should be presented in academic literature, in less formal bullet and number lists, there can be a bit of stylistic wiggle room.

Also worth noting is that items in bullet lists should not start with a capital letter unless they are proper nouns. They are not sentences; they are simply a way of making a list easier to understand. Again, capital letters feel a bit more natural to some people, and thanks to word processors auto-capitalising the start of every item, it’s very common to see. But in formal and academic contexts, treat bullet and numbered lists as a vertical sentences.

Semicolon ;

Semicolons are, as their appearance suggests, halfway between a colon and a comma. They are used to separate two independent but connected thoughts. The second statement can grammatically stand on its own, but without the first, it might not make much sense. Consider the following:

He opened the door and stepped inside. The echo of his footstep rang out.

He opened the door and stepped inside; the echo of his footstep rang out.

Both make perfect sense, but in the second example, it’s clearer that the echo and the step are connected. It feels like there’s continuity. There aren’t many situations where a semicolon is right but two sentences are wrong; it’s just a pleasant tool to deploy sparingly to let the reader recognise there’s a connection.

Comma splices

You can often use a semicolon to correct a comma splice. For example:

She toured the city, taking photo after photo, it was a lovely day.

which is wrong, can become:

She toured the city, taking photo after photo; it was a lovely day.

Capital letters after colons and semicolons

I mentioned above that both semicolons and colons should be followed by a lower-case letter unless it’s a proper noun. This is always true in British English. However, in the US, the rules are a little more flexible. Semicolons are usually followed by lower-case letters, but under some styles, the material after them is treated more like a new sentence, and therefore gets a capital. The important thing here is to be consistent with the style throughout.

The American way can have strange side-effects for the British reader, such as making mortals into deities:

Capital letters after colons and semicolons. American versus British styles

How to reduce word count (or letter count) in a document

A relatively common task assigned to copywriters and editors is reducing word count or letter count. The motivation is usually:

  • aesthetic (making the copy fit on the page more pleasingly);
  • restriction (where certain counts are mandatory or advisory, for example in tweets or meta descriptions, or perhaps to make sure a booklet is exactly 32 pages long);
  • simplicity (where the original is technical and heavy-going, but needs a simpler rendering for a general audience); or
  • for readability (simply shortening rambling text to make it shorter and quicker to read).

Although the reasons for shortening copy might differ, the end product is consistent: to say the say thing with fewer words. Let’s have a look at how to do it.

Techniques for reducing word or letter counts

So you’ve been instructed to reduce the word count or letter count (I’ll just use word count for now, unless it’s specifically letter count). Copywriters are quite used to doing this, as we do it to our own work all the time. We’ll create a first draft, then self-edit several times until we are happy with what we see. It’s not always to meet word counts, either – it’s just generally good practice to write less. However, to non-copywriters or editors, it can be a challenge. Assuming you’re given some copy to shorten, here’s how you go about it.

Assess the scale of the reduction

First, absorb the size of the reduction you need to make. If it’s reducing 1000 words to 900, this can usually be done with a bit of editing, but reducing by 50% or more can require more structural changes. For now, just bear that in mind as it’s too soon to make changes.

Give the text a full read

Read the whole thing, whether it’s a book, a brochure or a product description. Without knowing what the whole piece is about, you can’t hope to understand the point of the writing and which parts are important. Parts that might seem trivial early on can end up being key to the conclusion. And conversely, that 300-word description of a background fact could be superfluous to the story and a strong candidate for the chop. You need to understand your subject before you can judge which parts can be removed.

Consult the client/author about important parts

Always have a chat with the client about what the aim of the copy is. It isn’t always obvious to an outsider, and you could end up taking the copy in the wrong direction if you remove emphasis from the wrong parts.

Make several sweeps of the text

For average pieces of content in the 300–1500-word range, go through the copy several times, making small changes each time. If you can take 5% off the length each sweep, you can cut it by more than a fifth after four sweeps. You always see opportunities for reduction that you missed on previous sweeps, and re-treading your path helps you make sense of the text.

Use bullets

If you can use bullet lists and numbered lists to replace sentences, and the format is appropriate, do it. Bullet lists mean you don’t have to bother with grammar as the entries are often single words or phrases. Bullet lists also break up the text and make it more visually interesting, and therefore easier to read.

Do note, however, that if you’re reducing text to squeeze more material onto an area of a physical page or PDF, bullet lists can say less per cm² than a block of text can.

Pleonasms, redundant phrases and tautologies

Because the items in this paragraph’s subheading all mean the same thing, you can get rid of every instance of such redundant copy without harming the meaning. That’s because all the items in the subheading mean the same thing.

Is there a shorter way to say something?

Why say “we’re an engineering company based in Salford” when you can say “we’re a Salford-based engineering company”? Be alert to how changing the word order can take away grammatical necessities that use up valuable characters.

Finally, rewrite it

If, after assessing the scale of the task and reading through it, you conclude that it can’t be shortened, it will need to be re-written. Think of a better way to say what’s being said, work out how you can get to the end more efficiently, and create a brand new draft. It’s often quicker to do that anyway, especially with shorter texts. A copywriter or editor will be able to do it, too …

How to reduce word count in a document

The role of typesetting

Good typesetters know plenty of tricks to reduce the physical size of a block of text without making it less readable. They can subtly change letter-spacing, leading, font sizes and kerning to achieve text blocks that are identical to the layperson, but which can save valuable space on the page. If your word reduction is for visual reasons and the required reduction is relatively small, ask yourself if there’s anything typographical you can do with it.


Image: Mark Tegethoff

How to get a pound sign (£) and euro symbol (€) on a US keyboard

Pound euro symbol on US keyboard

Thank you very much, Sainsbury’s UK, for selling me this HP keyboard. I guess I can’t complain about it being US configuration when there’s a massive “US” sticker on the box. And on the whole, it’s the same, except the @ and ” are swapped over. Oh, and there’s no pound sign on it. Even though UK keyboards have a dollar sign on them, the USA doesn’t appear to reciprocate.

So much for the special relationship.

Getting the pound sign on the keyboard

Thankfully, I’ve found a workaround, which works-around in Windows.

Simply hold down Alt and type 0163 on the number pad (not the top line of the keyboard) and the £ miraculously appears.

Getting the euro symbol (€) on a US keyboard

While we’re on the subject, you might want to get the euro symbol from time to time. Now I come to think of it, my old GB keyboard didn’t have a euro symbol on it either. So much for our most important trading partner. Again, this is for Windows: Hold down Alt and type 0128 on the number pad. Bingo.

Now I just need to earn some money so I can put my skills to good use …

Pound euro symbol on US keyboard