Hot Writing Tip From Rihanna and Burt Bacharach: Keep It Short

A woman lying down on a sofa, wearing headphones, listening to music.

Rihanna and the late Burt Bacharach are big news this month. Rihanna ruled the halftime show at the Super Bowl. Bacharach ruled the obits after a long career of pop hits.

Born 60 years apart, Burt and Rihanna share a big thing in common –– or rather, a small thing: short words. Both are devoted to words of eight letters or less. Mostly much less. 

Here’s Rihanna’s setlist from the Super Bowl:

  • Bitch Better Have My Money
  • Where Have You Been
  • Only Girl (In The World)
  • We Found Love
  • Rude Boy
  • Work
  • Wild Thoughts
  • Pour It Up
  • All of the Lights
  • Run This Town
  • Umbrella
  • Diamonds

See a trend? Break those hit titles down – 34 words and 141 characters – and she averages just over four letters a word. 

Same goes for her lyrics:

Bitch better have my money / Y’all should know me well enough / Bitch better have my money / Please don’t call me on my bluff


Want you to make me feel like I’m the only girl in the world / Like I’m the only one that you’ll ever love / Like I’m the only one who knows your heart / Only girl in the world

This is no accident. And it’s not just Rihanna. Check the Billboard Hot 100 chart. As I write this, the top song is “Flowers” from Miley Cyrus. Also in the top 10: “Cuff It” by Beyoncé, “Die For You” by The Weeknd, “Anti-Hero” by Taylor Swift, and “As It Was” by Harry Styles. Look at the chart next week or next year and you’ll see the same.

Why do we care? Because these are people who get paid to grab and hold you for three minutes and 30 seconds. That’s the average length of a pop song – and also of a sales pitch, press release, case study, or memo to the boss. That’s why any writer should care: Short words work. Short words sell. Short words get it done.

They always have. Look at Bacharach’s hits from the 1960s, with lyrics by the fab Hal David:

  • Walk On By
  • What the World Needs Now Is Love
  • Do You Know the Way to San Jose?
  • I’ll Never Fall in Love Again
  • The Look of Love
  • This Guy’s In Love With You

Like RiRi, he’s got a jones for love and a jones for short words. That’s how you pile up the Grammys and Oscars. Sample lyrics:

The look of love is in your eyes / A look your smile can’t disguise / The look of love / It’s saying so much more than just words could ever say / And what my heart has heard, well, it takes my breath away


Do you know the way to San Jose? / I’ve been away so long / I may go wrong and lose my way / Do you know the way to San Jose? / I’m going back to find some peace of mind in San Jose

You may be thinking: “Sure, sure, sure: Burt’s writing about San Jose, Rihanna’s writing about hot love, but I’m writing about keyword optimization and web application monetization recommendations. I can’t keep it short.”

But you can! We all can! Try this: When you finish your next piece, make one more pass with mental scissors in hand. Look for any word over eight letters, and cut it in two. In place of “application monetization recommendations,” can we say “how to earn more with apps”?  In place of “technology companies are successfully addressing supply chain constraints,” can we say “tech firms have solved the supply chain”? In place of “entrepreneurs,” can we say “start-ups”?

Every time we swap a long word for a short one, we make our message twice as easy for the reader. We jab them awake instead of obfuscating them to sleep. Maybe we can’t trim every last word over eight letters – life needs its hamburgers and Champagne, after all – but we can trim a lot. We can make those long words into rare birds, not an endless flock.

And if you think Rihanna can’t write short for business, think again. She didn’t name her billion-dollar company Rihanna’s Corporation, after all. She named it Fenty.

ABOUT Fritz Holznagel

Fritz Holznagel is a veteran writer who likes to turn high-tech talk into clear, friendly words. He has written for Google, full-time and as a vendor, since 2004, as well as for clients like Ensono, Eventbrite, Kronos, GiveDirectly, and Intuit. Fritz’s special joy is rewriting to get rid of big words and jargon, and he leads corporate workshops on the topic. In a past life, Fritz won the 1995 Jeopardy! Tournament of Champions, represented the USA in the 1996 Jeopardy! Olympic Tournament, and won an Emmy for scripting the CBS special A Claymation Easter Celebration.