Learning the art of haiku writing forces you to consider not just the definition of a word, but its meaning when devoid of context, and also its length: all of these are things you must consider when writing good microcopy.
Whether it’s for a submit button or an email newsletter subject line, conveying message, tone and feeling in just a few words can be exceptionally difficult. You may think you’re being direct and obvious, but to some it may come across as boring or blunt. You might use a word which fits within your character limit, but has other connotations. Basically, writing microcopy is writing so that every word counts.
What Is A Haiku?
Simply put, a haiku is a very short form of Japanese poetry that is often taught in primary schools. Its most notable feature – and the way it’s taught in school – is that it should have 17 syllables in total spread over three lines, consisting of 5, 7 and 5 syllables.
5, 7, then 5
Syllables mark a haiku
Whole seasons are spent
Mastering the form, the style
None calls it easy
(from Avatar: The Last Airbender)
Okay, but what does it have to do with microcopy?
I’ve always loved writing haiku. We get taught in school that the only real rule to a haiku is that it should be three lines of 5, 7 and 5 syllables. It’s a challenge but by taking care over each word, a huge amount of meaning can be conveyed in those three small lines.
Unfortunately, like most things in life, what we’re taught in school isn’t quite right.
In Japanese, haiku are written with (usually) 5-7-5 on – which are sound syllables – and only slightly comparable to our spoken syllables. It’s rather complicated to get into, but it’s generally considered that the 17 on translate to around 12 syllables.
So that one easy rule we’re taught – well, it’s not true. And there are plenty of other rules, subject to opinion and historical use, which ought to be applied to haiku (although we’ll leave the ones unrelated to microcopy alone for now).
Write In The Present Tense
Haiku are always written in the present tense to convey the immediacy of their meaning. They’re often used to describe particular moments in life, what we might know as “a-ha!” moments or epiphanies. These sound much more dramatic in the present, as honestly, what’s the use in a past epiphany?
The same can be said for microcopy. When your writing is concerned with what someone did, or what they might do in the future, it can detract from the simple and direct message you want to get across right now.
For instance, instead of saying “We won’t spam you” on a newsletter sign-up, try “We never spam our customers”.
One of the beautiful things about writing haiku is crafting it carefully around just a few words. It’s not about spitting out meaning, but taking care over every word, without a single one wasted. Any microcopy expert will tell you this is quite possibly the most important element of the practice; you have your reader’s attention for such a small period of time that you can’t afford to waste a moment of it.
Microcopy can be made better by avoiding filler words and carefully considering the tone, connotations and meaning of every word.
Make It Internally Sufficient
Haiku are written as stand-alone verses which should be capable of conveying meaning without any outside context.
Sometimes in copy you’ll have context, but many other times you won’t. That’s why narrowing down your meaning and carefully selecting words which are clear and concise is so important to successful microcopy.
Show, Don’t Tell
This is a staple directive in any writing. Readers switch off if you tell them to do something that they don’t understand, or vaguely describe something they’re not knowledgeable about.
In haiku, this applies to emotion. A well-crafted haiku never names an emotion, but presents what caused it – in this way you aren’t telling the reader what to feel, but instead making them feel it.
In microcopy, it’s tempting to stick with blunt, directional copy – “submit”, or “click here” – but you aren’t showing the reader why they ought to do this action. Without waffling (see number 2), show the reader what they’ll get from completing this action rather than demanding they do so.
One of the core things that separates a haiku from similar forms of Japanese poetry is the use of a seasonal anchor. While it’s not always necessary to actually name a season, some word that signifies it must be used – frost for winter for example, or showers for spring. Using words like this can help to anchor the reader in the meaning, and make it feel more real to them.
Microcopy isn’t always affected by the seasons, but when it is you’d be wise to remember those seasonal words. This doesn’t mean having to crowbar in words like “winter” and “summer”, but thinking about connotations – words like “crisp” have pleasant connotations with winter, while “bloom” might suggest spring. Using these emotive words instead of nouns can be a great way to hook your audience.
Break from convention
Despite all of these rules, you shouldn’t be afraid to try something a little different.
In haiku we’re often told that a certain number of syllables is necessary, but this simply isn’t true! Many great haiku writers throughout history have defied convention and used the syllables (or on) that they need to get their point across.
When writing microcopy it is certainly helpful to have an idea of the convention – sometimes a certain word or number of words work for a good reason. But it’s important to try things for yourself every now and then, especially as many opinion pieces on SEO are just that: opinion.
Remember to A/B test though, to make sure you get accurate results as to your copy’s efficacy.
Hopefully this has given you some food for thought, and you’ll be able to approach microcopy in a more poetic way!
And here’s one from me:
Writing, like sowing
Plant a seed and watch it grow
Skill only blossoms