The Iron Imperative

Updated: Jul 6

If you’re an editor, a marketing manager or a collaborator who’s worked with me, the clarity and succinctness of my writing has made your job easier. Admit it. You may even think I’m talented. But here’s the thing:

  1. With the exception of one- or two-line emails, you have probably never read a first draft of anything I’ve written.
  2. 95 percent of my writing over the past couple years is much shorter than the original draft. Again, this holds true even for emails.

Since I became serious about copywriting I’ve religiously followed “The Iron Imperative,” a rule coined by writing consultant and author Josh Bernoff:

Treat the reader’s time as more valuable than your own.

Bernoff’s Iron Imperative isn’t just a matter of being a good writer; it’s a matter of courtesy. Assuming you actually want people to acknowledge and collaborate with you, it’s also a matter of self-interest.

For instance, tons of data from communications companies like Boomerang shows that the ideal length of an email is between 50 and 125 words. That is, a pithy email is less likely to be disregarded or deleted. Is 125 words sufficient for every topic? Hell no. And in some cases even 60 words is too verbose. The point is that everything you write is competing with gaggles of other articles, emails, blogs and marketing copy for the reader’s attention. You have to appreciate what influences people’s decisions about what to read, and data can be useful in that regard.

You can start applying the lesson today with a few simple tips.


Boomerang and Grammarly are indispensable communications tools that have improved my business writing. They help you self correct in real time and provide actionable insights (pardon the overused term) to improve your communications skills. Here are some stats from my Boomerang account:

My 2016 email response rates:

My 2017 email response rates:

The proof is in the pudding.

More tips on email etiquette from Boomerang here.


Hemingway App.  Hemingway is proof that the saying “You get what you pay for” is officially outdated. Like Grammarly, it’s free (Boomerang has a freemium model, but the paid version, at $5/month, is an excellent value). Hemingway flags things like passive voice, modifiers (such as “generally” and “actually”) and run on sentences. These things aren’t grammatically incorrect and certainly have their place, but they’re overused and make writing confusing and wishy-washy.

Trees—kill ‘em. Print off the article in a font you’re unaccustomed to and do a final proofread out loud. Taking your eyes off a screen and switching to an unfamiliar font helps you change gears mentally and flag redundancies and other mistakes you may have overlooked.

Good business writing has more to do with diligence than talent. To demonstrate this, I’m including a couple self-edits from this blog below (I assumed some readers would want to skip this).

“Language is more like mathematics than magic. It is a program code, for the computer called the mind, and its sequencing is not arbitrary at all.”

– John Franklin, 2-time Pulitzer Prize winner

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Appendix: Self-edits

(Original phrases in parentheses and revised/improved phrases in italics):

  • “There’s a lot of data out there from companies like Boomerang which shows”; –> tons of data from communications companies like Boomerang shows (Shortened 13 words to 9 words)
  • “If you want to cut through the noise you have to appreciate what influences the decisions people make when determining what to read”; –> You have to appreciate what influences people’s decisions about what to read. (Shortened 23 words to 12 words)

Posted on: June 13, 2018