Salute to Small Print

Last week I needed to buy an ironing board – not the kind of purchase I enjoy making. It just seems silly to invest in something that’s basically a flat surface. But I did the due diligence and went to a store to compare products.

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The high end board was $50. It was heavy and had a thick pad that suggested quality. When I read the small print, I learned it was made in India and included features I didn’t need: an iron rest and rack for folded garments.

The low end boards were light, small, and cheaply constructed, but the board in the middle was a good compromise: four legs, standard size without the extras, made in the USA with a 100% cotton cover. I bought that board for $25 and began thinking about what had swayed the sale. It was the small print.

As writers, we need to remember the value of 6 pt. type.
In fact, we should make sure we use small print enthusiastically to explain, disclaim, source, and provide context. A strategically placed low line or call- out can also spare disrupting the flow of text by diverting information to a place where it will fit.

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Use small print or “mouse type” to:

  • Display copyrights and explain registration marks
  • Convey survey methodology (+ or – 5% accurate)
  • Footnote a quote or paraphrase a comment
  • Identify a speaker
  • Caption a photo
  • Credit a source
  • Add information related to the text above
  • Provide legal guidelines
  • Note an expiration date or quantity limit
  • Explain translations or unusual word usage
  • Elaborate on business policies
  • Clarify guarantees
  • Offer safety warnings

Similar to small print are what I call “throw away lines.” One of the best examples is the P.S. in a business letter. Do you know that the eye goes to the P.S. first? Maybe it’s because the line stands alone, is short and easy to read. Maybe it’s because the line sits near the signature which is visually interesting. Either way, smart direct marketers know that it’s wise to load the P.S. with critical information such as a “save the date” reminder, a repeat offer, or call to action.

Another way to use a throw-away line is by stating the obvious, but disqualifying it in a manner to dismiss the information. Let’s say you’re fund raising but must comply with the No Purchase requirement of a raffle. Consider writing something like this: “Of course there’s no purchase required to enter, but we certainly hope you’ll think about the kids who would benefit from a small donation to the cause. So when you enter, why not include a little something for the XYZ Foundation.”

Writing to meet an audit requirement is similar. “We can’t claim your weekday subscription is free, but the weekend price is so good, it’s like paying pennies for Monday through Friday.” Similarly, “While we can’t take credit for coining the phrase Gobbledegook, we were certainly among the first to use it when we launched our new product.” This tactic basically states and refutes — before someone else does.

Think about the screen credits on your favorite movies. The biggest stars get top billing but don’t you tend to remember the “special guest appearance by You Know Who?” Kind of makes that person stand out. Similar with writing.
So don’t be afraid to buck the trend to scream from the rooftop. Tone it down and whisper. Or in the words of a legendary ad campaign, “Think Small.”

10 Ways to Write Better

Every once in a while even we prolific writers need some tough love. So here’s a quick refresher course. For those challenged by writing or just entering the field, hopefully these points will serve as practical guidelines.

1. Don’t write as you speak.
Even in speech writing or scripting, it’s important to parse words and focus thoughts. No room for stream of consciousness here. Start at the beginning, make a point, come to a conclusion, and propose a call to action.

2. Write what you know.
Most of us realize there’s a clear benefit to drawing from personal experience, but if you haven’t lived it, you have to learn it. There’s little room for B.S. Pick the brain of someone who knows more. Ask questions. If not possible, research, source it, and check your facts by using a second reference.

3. Edit Yourself – Be ruthless.
Most of us  proofread to catch typos and poor punctuation. It’s harder to edit ourselves as we would a film – in other words, leave beautiful scenes and treasured phrases on the cutting room floor. But advice is to do it and do it often. If you’re good enough, you can afford to lose a few words. You can always use them in something else.

4. Remember Your Audience.
This hits me over the head every time I encounter press releases. Some are well written, but too many talk to the end user. Remember, you’re not selling your product or achievements to the consumer. You’re trying to entice an editor to be interested enough to cover your story or at least run your PR. Load the important facts up top; leave quotes for the end.

5. Be Aware of the Delivery Channel.
What might be right for a blog or family newsletter is most likely not appropriate for business writing. Skip the cutesy comments. Eliminate the “I’s” and “we’s.” Talk business and use terms that sell. For fundraising, opt for kinder and gentler phrases. Tug at the heartstrings but don’t beg. It’s still business.

6. Say Something Useful.
We’re all guilty of it. When we’re on a roll, we love to hear ourselves talk (or more appropriately, write). But make sure you’re not spouting industry jargon because it sounds smart. We used to joke about seeing how many times we could get “synergy” and “paradigm” into one paragraph. Great that we know these buzz words, but sometimes Plain English is better.

7. Track Your Results.
The nice thing is, except for a few Commandments, most words are not engraved in stone – and thankfully, the web allows us to replace them easily. So if something is wrong or isn’t pulling response, no need to suffer. Fix it. Change it. Try something new.  A bit of tracking code on your online campaign can work wonders.

8. Sit on the floor. (Huh?)
You heard me. Get a fresh perspective. Once I had a Sociology professor who made us sit on the floor the first day of class. He wanted us to see the world differently – not in terms of positive or negative influences but in terms of the dynamics that played between them.  That’s a good trick when looking for a positioning line — or certainly a child’s viewpoint.

9. Write Visually.
That almost doesn’t make sense… but remember that words translate into images…both mentally (those conjured up by great description) and physically (as those words layout on a page or screen). Leave some breathing room… a place for the eye to roam or the mind to wander. Think about how your words will look or sound to the reader or listener when accompanied by bright visuals or by nothing. Big blocks of dense text rarely succeed.

10. Show Your Writing to Someone You Respect.
This is a tough one; none of us likes criticism, but it can be helpful to share a draft for concept even if not for tight editing. Rather than share it for approval, assume the presumptive stance, “I’m about to submit this proposal. Does it make sense? Is it too long? Do you feel like anything’s missing? I’ll copy edit it later.”

Run yourself through this exercise, then go boldly forward – and mouse on!