Writing at the Speed of Life: Why Word Pacing is Super Critical

As writers, we agonize, sometimes for hours, over the exact words to use, whether it’s finding just the right turn of phrase to perfectly describe a setting or arranging a conversation between characters to make it not only fit who they are but also believable. This is true not just in books but in every form of writing.

In my day job, the words and phrases I piece together become money-making emails and online banners for several major corporations and smaller companies. I’ve also published a spy novel, a non-fiction book on real estate (now out of print), and a second non-fiction book, this one on baseball umpires.

When I wrote the novel, I had to pay rapt attention not only to the words each character spoke and the adjectives and adverbs in the action scenes (there are many) but also the pacing. Draggy dialog and bogged down action are fatal to the reader’s experience. For characters to be relatable, they should sound like human beings, not robots, with all their foibles, grammatical miscues, and incomplete sentences.

Dialog should sound like dialog.

And so should advertising copy.

“Wait, what?” you say. “Ad copy should sound like dialog?”

Yes. Here’s why.

Advertising is really just a not-so-subtle instruction to take action. The advertiser wants you to get up and buy this product! Jump in the car! Hop online! Call the 1-800 number! Do something! Don’t just sit there!

Just do it!

Which brings me to why pacing matters.

Imagine if athletic shoe giant Nike (no, I don’t work for them, so this is not a shameless plug) changed their world famous slogan to something less catchy.

Maybe “Just Implement It” or “Consider Moving Along.”

While both of those phrases technically say the same thing as “Just Do It,” how motivated are you by either of the alternatives?

See, by whittling down the slogan to three monosyllabic words, Nike accomplished three things really simply:

  1. They made the slogan ridiculously easy to remember. Think about the next time you try to talk yourself into doing something you really don’t want to do, such as taking out that tree stump or cleaning out the garage. You finally tell yourself “just do it” and voila! Nike comes to mind. And you weren’t even thinking about shoes. But you are now.
  2. They keyed in on the core value that all Nike customers want: achievement. Whether it’s an Ironman Triathlon, finishing your first 5K, improving your golf game, or just fitting into The In Crowd with the latest athletic footwear or a swoosh on their hat.
  3. They transformed Nike from a shoe company into a marketing/communications company that happens to sell shoes, much the same way marketing giant Apple sells computers and other electronic goods: by tapping first into the customer’s perceived emotional need.

What Nike understands better than anyone else is how to push their customers’ buttons.

And they do it by being simple and quick.

“Just Do It” was just the start.

Pacing is all about using not just the right number of words in a sentence but the right number of syllables in the right cadence.

Go back to the Nike alternatives. Neither of them works because they are too long and require readers to think too hard to get the point. And we know from experience that they won’t. If customers don’t get it instantly, they’ll simply quit.

Mission failed. Customer lost. Revenue lost. Time and effort wasted.

Notice how I paced that last short paragraph. I could have used complete sentences to make it grammatically correct, but you would have been bored and subconsciously edited it as you read, distracting you from the message.

But by breaking it up into tinier bites, you ate it quickly and moved on. Plus, by using clipped phrases in a fast sequence, they became punchier, more impactful. (See how I did it again?)

With all this talk about quick hit copy, it is important to recognize that it’s not just about being quick. It’s about finding the right pace for the moment.

Sometimes slowing down is better.

For instance, say you’re advertising a day spa designed for total relaxation, with soothing steam rooms, soft terrycloth robes, and relaxed couples massage. Paint that picture using long, drawn out phrases and sentences, with adjective-laced lists, each one building upon the last, floating the reader gently along with you as you describing in soothing details all the relaxing amenities she will enjoy as she lets the world go by around her while she pampers herself in pure luxury.

You just sighed. And your shoulders dropped a bit as tension exited your body. It’s amazing what a mental picture can do.

You also began to read more slowly around the time you reached “soothing steam rooms, soft terrycloth robes, and relaxed couples massage.”

Words have a physical effect on the human body just as much as watching a movie or television show. Study someone’s facial expressions when they read a book. While their reactions will not be as dramatic as the instant feedback of a TV viewer, readers still react to what they are reading with the same emotional cues of sadness, glee, or fright.

Whatever you write – be it books, articles, blog posts, or ad copy – be mindful not just of the accuracy of the words you choose but of the pacing of how they string together.

Does the rate fit the goal? Does it need to speed up or slow down?

Read it aloud. Does it sound like you intend it? Does it sound like a conversation, even if it’s one-sided? If so, success!

If not, rewrite until it does.

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