Faking a Short Document

Have you ever had a lot of stuff to say, but know that no one wants to read a lot?

I recently read Larry Kunz asking about how to engage distracted readers. He points us to Anne Gentle asking (and doing a good job answering) the same question, and there’s some really good discussion going on.

One thing that everyone agrees on is that we need to keep it short.

“Keep it short” is a mantra that I chant every time my fingers touch a keyboard. The less people think they have to read, the more likely they’ll read it.

I joke that my general editing philosophy is to delete every third word. It’s a joke, but… it’s not far from the truth. “Omit needless words,” Strunk calls down to us from the ages.

But sometimes there’s too much to say. You just can’t sum up all the information in a short paragraph or two, and you can’t split it up into two topics.

This is when we fake it.

More white space

White space is the easiest way to fake a short document. It’s my theory that people see white space and their brains tell them that this is a short document.

“Not much effort to read this,” the brain says. “I mean, look at it! It’s mostly white!”

Sidebars and other graphical separators

I think a sidebar both hides text and highlights it at the same time.

  1. It “hides” the text, because the reader’s brain says, “that stuff isn’t important, so all I need to read is this stuff in the middle.” The brain sees a more manageable page with less text on it.
  2. It highlights the text by piquing our curiosity. I don’t know about you, but I always want to read the sidebar. Sometimes I read it first. Sidebars call to me.

So we have the brain discounting the information when deciding whether the document is too long, but also pushing the reader to go read it.

The same principle applies when there’s any graphical element separating text. It hides the text and highlights the text.

Expandable text

Some help authoring tools make it easy to create links that show text on the page when you click them. This method lets you hide information, but not force people to leave the page (and maybe have to come back to find more).

Again, we’re tricking the brain into seeing just a little text on the page, but we’re really packing it with information.

Do you have any tricks for faking a short document?


Larry’s post

Anne’s post

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