Spikey Katfish

Or How I learned to stop worrying and love the empty, white spaces in between.

I edited a print magazine for a decade. During that time, I drove our various designers slightly bonkers with my desire to cram words into every available nook and cranny of a page. “What do you mean, 800 words on a page is too many? Just make it fit.” There was some, let’s say, creative tension between cramming in a lot of information in a limited number of pages and their desire to exercise some design ethos.

I generally won the arguments. After all, they were contracting for us. Though, over time, I came to see their point and even admit that I had been wrong.

White space can be your friend, in a number of ways.

Reading Steve Krug’s Don’t Make Me Think and Letting go of the Words by Janice Redish  a few years back also really helped. So has 4 years and counting on Twitter.

Slowly, I’ve learned to accept, if not entirely embrace, that less is sometimes more.

Let’s take a sideways step here for a second to share with you where I’m coming from. I’m a knick-knack guy. My shelves in my one tiny room that I’m allowed as totally my own is crammed with a bunch of stuff. Mostly books, but also a variety of action figures, miniature toy soldiers, and Kinder Egg toys (I LOVE Kinder Egg toys) live on my shelves. I therefore come to the design table with not having an issue with shoving a lot of shit into a small space – many of you may remember the word “blivit.” (Which I’m pretty sure I first heard as a Sniglet years ago, but may not be. Regardless, for those of you unfamiliar with the term: 10 pounds of shit in a 5 pound bag..

While this can be a strength in writing effective content marketing copy – attention to detail and an eye for minutiae that others might miss can be helpful. When it comes to design . . .. well, not everyone is as receptive to clutter as I am. [The wife prefers the word “mess.”]

Over the years, I’ve come to think of white space in a few different ways.

Cut the Fat

Not a unique piece of advice, but cutting words out to let copy breath is a good thing – not the first time you’ve heard this, no doubt. While doing this is good for your writing in general;  I’ve learned over time that there is a yin-yang thing going with design and words and that you need enough of each for them both to have maximum impact.

I’ve also been helped by being liberated from sixty-four 8.5 by 11 inch pieces of paper stapled together (plus 4 for the cover). When you cover a wide-ranging topic, want to be as useful as possible, and have about 230 of those pieces of paper to use over the course of a year (and you add in my clutter factor); there is a tendency to want to try to shove as much into those pages as you can.

The joy of the Internet, I quickly discovered, is that you can write until you’re done. Now, sometimes folks should be done sooner (you might be thinking that just now), but you aren’t circumscribed by the need to go to press, get in the mail, and fit inside the physical constraints of paper.*

Write till you don’t need to write more to make your point and stop. I try to stick to this when writing marketing copy (not enough when I’m writing these blog posts).

For me, when I’m editing, I often think in terms of white space (no idea why, just happened over the years – I still edit and have in mind what it could look like on a magazine page). But white space also applies to words. Let ‘em go. You don’t need all of them for your website – especially the front page. To my mind, websites are a series of “home pages.” The goal of each of these pages is to get the visitor to click through to the next page – where the meat is.

I encourage anyone to read Redish’s book. Otherwise, do what all good editors tell you to do – write for maximum impact.

Thinking like this will also help you plan out how your blog post will use white space and flow:

  • Will you use pull quotes and extensive sub-heads to guide readers through your post (something I need to do more of)?
  • What about placing images to supplement your words?
  • Which blog template best represents you and how you want to present your content?

I struggle with all three of these questions. And expect I will until I hang up the keyboard.

Mental Whitespace
Ideas are good, but too many – at least when you’re trying to get something done – can just be clutter and trip you up as you try to focus and get stuff done.

One of the strategies I’m trying to use this year is to get ideas out of my head and down on paper in a draft document so that when it’s time to get something done – a blog post, email campaign, social media, etc. – I can focus on the task at hand.

You also need to whitespace your ideas. That is, edit them. Like a too-cluttered magazine page detracts from readability, too many ideas – even good ones – slammed together can be an incoherent mess. Create enough whitespace to focus on the ideas that you like and want to focus on and focus on them. Get rid of the mental clutter and don’t try to cram every good idea into everything you do.

You can make more (blogs, video, infographics, email campaigns) and include those fantastic ideas later (and sometimes, you’ll return to an idea and be . . . less than excited about it. Like waking up with someone after an all-night binge – what was I thinking?)

Also, give them time to breath and work. While you don’t see too much of it any longer, the ethos of fail fast continues to permeate content marketing and the Internet. And, absolutely, there is an element of speed to everything we do for content marketing.


Some things do just take time – even in Internet years. Give your ideas time to succeed.

*I loved editing a print magazine – putting together the puzzle of an issue and trying to cover topics over the course of a year was a lot of fun. I often think I’d love to be a print editor again – with a hefty side of Web publishing, of course.

**Yeah, I love The Oatmeal.

The photo is of a few of my bookshelves. Top left in the photo is Godzilla With the Shooty Fist — the best Christmas toy ever. Also, in my defense, they’re usually not quite this bad — but it is the coldest room in the house and I haven’t been working in there for a while.

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