COPE-ing with Copy 101 – The Long and the Short of It

There’s one question people invariably ask when it comes to copy: “How long should I write?” You can ask a hundred different people and you’ll likely get 100 different answers.

My answer? As many words as your audience will read.

Unless there are very good reasons, I’m not a big fan of arbitrarily setting limits to content length. There’s no magic number. Instead, it’s a combination of the space that you have available, the quality of your content, and the format upon which it is to be presented.

I did specify “arbitrarily” because the curators of today’s on-line environment can benefit from the imposition of a certain structure. Back in the day, most of us accessed the Internet through a Web page on a 15 or 17-inch monitor. Web pages were static design because they could be – you knew how the majority of your readers and customers were interacting with your content and could write to fit.

Now, however, your customers can interact with you on anything from a 160x160-pixel Blackberry to a 70-inch Internet-enabled TV.

You could design different pages for each different format, or you could take advantage of responsive design principles and make your content work for you.

While I’m nowhere near technically inclined enough to speak to the back-end development aspect of responsive design (that’s a column for another day, by another person. And, trust me, I’m working on getting him to write), I am quite happy to discuss the benefits of a Create Once, Publish Everywhere content strategy.

Some see this as a paradigm shift in content development, but for an old-school writer raised in journalism, it’s pretty much old hat. When you stop thinking of Web pages as a whole entity in and of itself but rather as the sum of some very important parts, it all makes sense.

The foundation of COPE (also known, amongst other names, as Content Everywhere and summarized eloquently in Sara Wachter-Boettcher’s December 2012 book conveniently called, Content Everywhere) is that all content can be broken down into specific elements. As content creators and curators, we can enforce structures that not only work for multi-platform displays, but also allow us to maximize the content's impact.

To me, the greatest advantage is that by establishing these structures, we empower the end user to create meaningful, quality content. While criteria and limits for content blocks may seem restrictive, they are, in fact, liberating and afford you the freedom to let your content shine in its best possible light.

Let’s face it, some writers are better than others. And some content creators and curators aren’t writers by trade, but rather by necessity. By outlining exactly what an end-user needs to create we can, at the very least, free them of the fear of staring at a blank screen. Like a chauffeur, a well-crafted CMS built around providing the user with clearly defined fields lets the end user worry less about the technical aspects of ‘getting there’ and affords them the opportunity to focus on quality content creation.

I firmly believe that most businesses and end users want to update their pages, provide relevant content to their customers and readers, and do so regularly. By making it clear what’s needed and where, we take away the “What now?” or the “Where do I start?” concerns. And by doing so in a way that allows content to be repurposed in multiple areas, we can make that updating task far less daunting.

Over the next couple of blogs, we’ll get into specific structural elements and I’ll provide some answers to that age-old question of “How long should I write?” (spoiler alert: don’t expect any definitive statements other than variations of “Whatever your readers/customers will tolerate.”) I’ll share my thoughts on some of the most-common types of content that businesses will use and how to apply some traditional principles to modern design.

Many people dredge up that tired old “Content is King” adage, but it’s a far too simplistic generalization. Without any understanding or willingness to invest the time and effort to make content worthy of the crown, then the King has no clothes. Ironically, ‘Content is King’ has become an empty sentiment – a panacea promoted by corporate executives and self-professed SEO gurus, but one that’s often devoid of meaning.

There have been many monarchs throughout history – some good, some bad. The steps you follow, the care you take, and the talent you have (or source) will decide which King Richard your copy will take after: will it be regaled like Richard the Lionheart, or demonized like Richard III – condemned, pilloried, and buried in Internet’s virtual parking lot?

So how long should you write? In the end, quality will always trump quantity – and staring with COPE-ing with Copy 201: Does Size Matter?, we’ll examine how to benefit from a defined structure to free up resources to focus on writing copy that matters.

We’d love to hear from you. Feel free to share your thoughts on how you handle copy creation for your site? Do you design for different formats or do you repurpose copy? As always, comments are open.

Questions Answered

How do I create content for multiple platforms?

What does content is king mean?

What is COPE?

Do I have to design a site for every type of screen or browser?

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