July 5 2012
Two easy secrets for more readable prose
Writing workshop instructor Ann Wylie says your readers don't comprehend your writing as well as you may think. Here's how to remedy that. As literacy rates and "understandable" levels plummet, Wylie says that if we make our copy easier to read - people will read it.
read online: Two secrets for more readable prose
, by Matt Wilson via ragan.com
Ann Wylie has good news and bad news to share with communicators.
First, the bad: People don't read as well as you or your bosses think they do.
"Executives and the people who approve our copy believe that readers will wade through whatever we put down on paper," said Wylie of Wylie Communications, in addressing attendees of her session at the International Association of Business Communicators World Conference recently. "We all know that's not true."
The good news? Communicators can access lots of free online tools—StoryToolz
, for example—to improve the readability of what they write. They just have to know what to look for.
"If we make our copy easier to read—this is such a shock—more people will read it," Wylie said.
Communicators often think that hitting the "publish" button means they've done their job, but publishing something that isn't easily understandable means you aren't actually communicating. And Wylie pointed out that for many readers "understandable" means something pretty basic.
"Literacy is way worse than you think, all over the world," she said.
Around four out of 10 Americans have below-basic reading skills, Wylie said. They have trouble finding an intersection on a map, picking out opposing viewpoints, or finding information that's pertinent to them in catalogs. In other developed countries, anywhere between one-fourth (Sweden) and three-fourths (Chile) of people have reading problems that make it tough to get through the day.
"This is our audience," Wylie said. "The real challenge is, are we smart enough to write for fifth-graders?"
There are other factors, too. For instance, older employees are less likely to have attended college, and reading material on mobile devices can substantially hinder one's understanding of complex writing.
"Reading your press release on an iPhone is like reading 'War and Peace' through a keyhole," Wylie joked.
Executives not only have less time to read things, many also have attention deficit disorder (which actually helps them to be more productive). Some prominent executives, such as Charles Schwab and Steve Jobs, have struggled with dyslexia.
"We can't assume that all of these people, just because of their status, have super-high levels of literacy," she said.
Plus, people want to read material that's welcoming.
"Even if you're writing for brain surgeons and rocket scientists, you need to make it easier to read," Wylie said.
Shorter is better
According to Joseph Kimble's book, "Writing for Dollars, Writing to Please
," FedEx estimated it would save $400,000 by rewriting one manual. There's a payoff in being aware of readability, and Wylie said the two biggest areas to improve are word lengths and sentence lengths.
"The problem with long words isn't that it's hard for people to understand them," she said. "The problem is they take longer to read."
Longer words also don't get shared. The average length of words in tweets that get retweeted is 1.62 syllables, Wylie said. You should aim for an average around that number of syllables and at about five letters. The Wall Street Journal's average word length is 4.8 letters, she said.
Long words seem dishonest, Wylie pointed out. "If organizations are not doing well, they bury the truth in an avalanche of syllables."
It should be relatively easy to keep words short. The most-used English words are one syllable each, all the way up through No. 54. And No. 55 is "about."
Sentences are a little different.
"The problem with sentence length, unlike word length, is that people have trouble understanding long sentences," Wylie said. "If you add a word, you reduce comprehension."
She showed a chart depicting a direct correlation between sentence length and comprehension. For 100 percent comprehension, sentences should be eight words long. When sentences stretch out to 44 words, comprehension drops to about 10 percent.
Wylie said to aim for sentences of 14 words, which garner about 90 percent reader comprehension.
Six writing tips
Wylie offered these tips for making your writing even easier to read:
1. Check reading levels.
One index that's really good is the Flesch Reading Ease index, Wylie says, which marks the easiest-to-read text at the top, 90 to 100. "We want to hit 60 or 70. That's standard."
2. Evaluate the piece as a whole.
"People will stop reading sooner if your story is longer," Wylie said.
3. Break up paragraphs.
"People look at your copy and, based on paragraph length, think it looks hard to read," Wylie said. "The longer your paragraph, the sloggier your piece looks." She said to keep paragraphs to three sentences in print and to one or two online.
4. Avoid passive voice.
"If you can add the phrase, 'by my grandma' to the end of a sentence, it's passive," Wylie said.
5. Watch sentence structures.
Starting sentences with pronouns, articles, or interrogative pronouns is good, Wylie said, because that means you're starting with the subject. Conjunctions are also good, because that means you're writing short sentences. Avoid prepositional phrases and subordinating conjunctions.
6. Use clear, strong words.
"Don't commit verbicide," Wylie said. Try to remove "ing" from your verbs, because auxiliary verbs weaken sentences. Keep out prepositional phrases. Be careful with pronouns, which can create ambiguity.