To Compose is Human, To Edit Divine

Last week I attended the International Association of Business Communicators 2012 World Conference. I heard the venerable Ann Wylie (Wylie Communications, Inc.) speak on writing for readability.

Here’s the thing: research shows that the more words you use, the less people will read.

Ann, who consults for clients like The Mayo Clinic and FedEx while earning prestigious communications awards, points to six decades of research. It all says this: easy-to-read copy improves readership, perseverance, comprehension, speed and retention. And, a big, BIG part of making your writing easier to read is keeping it concise.

And don’t go thinking that it depends on your audience. It doesn’t.

Most everyone–bus drivers, rocket scientists, senior citizens, college students and millionaires alike–prefers simple text over complex. In short, we want to get our information quickly and easily.

Having said all that, I should end this blog right now, right? Trouble is, if you’ve ever tried to rein in your writing you know it’s a lot harder than it sounds.

Thankfully, there are some tricks that can help. Ann had three stellar ones.

First, use short words. Of the 100 most commonly used words in the English language (as ranked on, all have six letters or less, most have four or less letters.

Remember, your readers may understand that “our organization facilitates the creation of transformative programs for individuals” means you help people. But why make readers slog through that?

The Wall Street Journal averages 4.8 characters per word and two syllables per word. Personally, I think The Wall Street Journal is a smart and good standard.

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Need more convincing? Ann’s research shows that longer words reduce sharing of your writing and decrease understanding. Big words also make your message seem dishonest.

Next, shorten your sentences. Much like long words, lengthy sentences reduce comprehension. To get 100 percent comprehension from readers, you would have to write only eight word sentences, says Ann.

But you can still score 90 percent comprehension with 14 words or less. Wisely, Ann suggests staying within 150 percent of that standard: so aim for 21 words or less.

By the way, I just went back over each of the sentences in this blog. I had to shorten two.

Finally, keep your paragraphs short.

In this case, it’s all about perception. Shorter paragraphs look easier to read.

Ann’s advice?  Aim for 42 words or less. Then, three sentences or less per paragraph for print; one to two sentences for online. Unless they are super short, like this one.

You can also look at reading levels with a scoring vehicle of your choice. For example, with Flesch Reading Ease you should hit 60-70; with Flesch-Kincade grade level, 7th-8th grade rules.

Now, please excuse me. I’ve got some editing to do.


2 thoughts on “To Compose is Human, To Edit Divine

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