November 9, 2010Iceberg Theory – What Hemingway can teach us about web copywriting

“For Sale: baby shoes, never worn.”

This was Ernest Hemingway’s response when asked to come up with the shortest story possible. He’s right — it’s short, and it tells a story, a very sad one. Of course, much isn’t said. We don’t even know who the characters are, let alone their names. But do we need to know any more in order for the story to be effective?

Copywriting is the art of fitting as much information into as small a space as possible, quickly providing the reader with a call to action, ruthlessly trimming away any information that’s not necessary, surgically removing superfluous words.

By analysing Hemingway’s “shortest” story, we can understand the mind of a copywriter at work. The story is pared down to the bare essentials — in fact, it’s told in the form of an advertisment. It’s definitely no coincidence that Hemingway chose an advertisment to showcase this most minimal form of writing. While long copy undoubtedly works, short copy is much more effective at grabbing attention — long copy increases sales and conversions (with structured argument) but it’s short copy that attracts people in the first place.

What about web copy?

Being a web copywriter is a unique skill requiring balance between long copy and short copy. It’s not like writing for copy for a single side of paper, a flyer, or a 16 page brochure. You can add or subtract as many pages as you want and they can be as long as you like. Only you can decide where the balance lies. Luckily, Hemingway can still help.

Most people only see the tip of the iceberg.

Iceberg Theory” was Hemingway’s idea that most of the story was going on “underneath” the story he was telling. “For Sale, Baby Shoes, Never Worn” tells us very little in itself. But it implies a great deal more. A good web copywriter takes the same approach to producing content.

The main pages — ie the ones that 99% of people look at, like the “home” and “about” pages, are the tip of the iceberg. Here, we keep content short, sweet and implied. We limit ourselves to headlines and short copy. If we assume a 50% bounce rate, pages linked to from “the tip of the iceberg” should contain twice as much information (but will be read by half as many people.)

In other words:

The amount of information supplied per page should be inversely proportional to the number of people reading it.

In this case, less is quite literally more — 99.9% of people will be prepared to read a short headline — 90% will go on to read the first paragraph beneath. Maybe only 50% will read beyond three paragraphs.

When it comes to multiple pages, the same rule applies. Be concise on page 1. Supply more information on the sub-page. Supply really detailed information on page 3.

Of course, this rule doesn’t apply to landing pages, which should be keyword rich and sales focused. But by using analytics to chart the flow of traffic from page to page, you can work out an information architecture based on the “iceberg” theory — providing short, snappy information for the masses followed by increasingly in-depth information as people continue to click.

Be concise. You don’t need to write a novel about what you’re selling.

Hemingway only wrote about the tip of the iceberg — A Farewell To Arms was only about one man’s story of World War I, not about the whole war — that was the iceberg underneath. As a web copywriter, you have an infinite number of pages, so you get to decide how big the iceberg is but remember — the rest of the web is your iceberg.

For example, if you’re writing copy for an online camera store, you only really need to write¬† about your company’s USP and value, with brief descriptions. The unwritten iceberg under the water is the hundreds of review sites and other informative places where users will decide which camera they want — your job is to write your site’s story, not the whole history of the camera.

So what lessons can us humble web copywriters and content producers learn from Hemingway?

Be short, snappy and concise. Tell the important facts first.

You don’t have to tell the whole story right away. Or at all.

Be specific. Structure information with the shortest, most relevant material first.

Sure, you could fill your site with hundreds of thousand word sub-pages full of detail. But most people will only ever see ‘the tip of the iceberg’. Keep your site short and uncluttered. Keep your copy short, too. A headline is worth ten paragraphs. A call to action is too.

Using Hemingway’s ‘Iceberg Theory’ you can produce a site that seamlessly melds short copy and long copy. That’s the secret to good web copywriting.

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This entry was posted on Tuesday, November 9th, 2010 at 3:02 pm and is filed under Blog, Copywriting. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.


  1. Dunstan says:

    When I wrote party political leaflets, our guide was “Make sure you get your message across between the doorstep and the bin”. There was a full leaflet of content, and we wrote it carefully because some people would read it, but more important was that everyone remembered they’d had a leaflet at all.

  2. sxysue1985 says:

    That’s fascinating.

    I view composition in terms of form and function, believing that each passage, every paragraph, should stand in its own right and also have a function within the holistic whole. I’ve come across Hemingway’s iceberg theory before, and was excited by what I read – as Hemingway was by the idea itself (he loved the idea of keeping as much as possible hidden, suggesting it through the brush strokes of his writing). Drawing parallels between fiction and advertising copy is pertinent to a degree, because writing is always a form of advertising; its aim is to engage the reader. But expressing the methodology as a strategy for structuring a website is something I’ve never seen. It’s analogous to the expository paragraph, where you begin with a bold statement conveying the central idea at the top and follow it with its supporting matter (as in a website’s subpages).

    Composition has shape, and this article illustrates that nicely.

    Really quite interesting.

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