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9 Tips That Add Up To Readable Writing

On 27 February, I achieved my highest single-word score yet in Words With Friends.

I was nearing the end of a nip-and-tuck game with the talented Shelley Howard of the same-named consulting firm when I looked at my tiles and saw it: DRUMLED.

Quick rearrangement, the bonus of both Triple Letter and Triple Word squares, a Bingo (using all seven tiles in one turn) and a match-up with the  I and N in AGAIN netted me a whopping score. (Whopping for me anyway.)

The word? MUDDLER. What you’ll be quick to note is that it’s nothing special. And that’s the point.

Many people won’t play Word With Friends with a writer.

They figure any writer worth hiring must know dozens of long and esoteric words. But I believe my success as a copywriter depends on my limited vocabulary, which doesn’t include many words longer than six characters or three syllables.

Why? Because that helps make my writing understandable to readers. I’m not trying to impress my audience, I’m trying to persuade them. And the way to do that is to write so that they can quickly grasp the message.

You probably already own a key tool to make your writing persuasive.

If your program of choice for writing is Microsoft Word, you run Spelling & Grammar to check your doc before sending it out into the world. (If you don’t check your doc, we have another issue entirely.)

Just make sure that in the Spelling & Grammar tab, you ticked the boxes to Check grammar with spelling and Show readability statistics. Then run the check on your doc.

1.     Review the Readability Statistics

After Word confirms that, yes, you could still win a spelling bee and, yes, middle school English paid off, you’ll see the Readability Statistics pop up. The numbers don’t necessarily make intuitive sense, so you make be tempted to ignore them.

Don’t! Take a minute to find out what the numbers mean. The example here shows the results from a draft customer email I wrote for Aperion Audio.

2.     Check the Flesch-Kincaid Grade Level

Being contrary, I tend to look at the last section—Readability—and the last number first. The Flesch-Kincaid Grade Level shows the approximate reading level for the piece. Looks like the average U.S. 7th grader can understand my draft.

Perfect! Seventh graders may not be buying upscale home theater speakers, but most consumers don’t read at much more than an 8th grade level anyway. I’ve just made it easy for them.

Often I look no further than the Grade Level. If that’s good, all else tends to fall in place. But let’s explore what the other numbers tell us just in case we need them someday.

3.     Ponder the Flesch Reading Ease

The number hovering above Grade Level is Flesch Reading Ease, which is a measure of understandability based on average sentence length and average number of syllables per word. Our goal is 60-70, and we’re on the mark with this email.

4.     Nix the Passive Sentences

Above that lies Passive Sentences. You probably already know what a passive sentence is: One in which the subject does not do the action. The classic example: Ronald Reagan’s “Mistakes were made,” referring to secret arms deals with Iran. Who made the mistakes? We don’t know. Who will fix them? Not surprisingly, Reagan chose to use the active voice here: “I will set things right.”

Unless you’re a politician, skip the passive sentences. Note that in my example, you see a big, fat zero here. For a short piece, that’s exactly what I want. In a white paper or case study, particularly a technical one, I might allow a few passive sentences, but still not many.

5.     Obey the Law of Averages

Now what if the Readability numbers didn’t look quite so stellar? For example, I recently worked on a case study with a brain-numbing 14.8 Grade Level! I can guarantee most members of the target audience held advanced degrees, but that doesn’t mean they want to struggle to glean the valuable content. To bring that Grade Level down into the high school range at least, I cast my editorial eye on the Averages section.

6.     Trim Sentences Per Paragraph

In the example here, the Sentences per Paragraph is 3.6. My client and I feel good about that, but many tipsters will tell you to cut that to around 2.0 for email. What you’re aiming for is punchy, precise prose.

But I cheat a bit: Often I bold the first sentence in a paragraph instead of creating a separate subhead. Then I make the bold pieces flow together to tell a story. That works really well for readers who would more accurately be called skimmers, so I give myself leeway on the Sentences number.

7.     Cut Words Per Sentence

Next take a look at the Words per Sentence. Here I’ve got 15.9 words, which works fine for an email or brochure. For a print ad, I’d write shorter sentences; for a white paper, I might write slightly longer ones. Don’t aim for Hemingwayesque, but do aim for clear and direct.

8.     Limit Characters Per Word

Finally I look at the Characters per Word. My email’s petite words average only 4.3 characters in length, well under the suggested 5.0 limit. Again, don’t use a longer word when a shorter word will do. You don’t get extra points for using pulchritudinous instead of pretty.

But do use a longer word if it’s the specific meaning you want—and your readers will understand it. That’s especially relevant for techie writing, where it can be challenging to keep the Characters number low. But even here, remember you don’t have to use utilization when usage will do.

9.     Follow the Counts

I tend not to look at anything in the Counts section unless my client gives me specific limits. But as Shakespeare said: Brevity is the soul of wit.

So I’ll stop here, except for a quick Readability summary for this blog: Grade Level–7.0; Reading Ease–66.9%; Passive Sentences–1.0%; Sentences per Paragraph–2.8; Words per Sentence–13.6; Characters per Word–4.5.  Spot on!

PS–So what was my score for playing MUDDLER in WordPress? 118 points! What’s your top play?

(If you found this blog post valuable, be first to find out when I’ve written others. That usually happens every other Friday. Sign up to receive the How-To and So-What Blog in your inbox.)

This Post Has 2 Comments

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