"We are drowning in information but starved for knowledge." – John Naisbitt
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Issue 9    November, 2013

Sue HornerDear Sue2,
How easily can employees understand the material they get? In October, Ann Wylie challenged readers of her monthly newsletter to take a hard-to-read passage and rewrite it to improve readability. I was already going to write about this when I found out – my entry won! (Thanks, Ann!)
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Challenge: Make a 105-word sentence readable

The American Press Institute research suggests sentences averaging 14 words are easiest to understand. That means one sentence stretching 105 words guarantees nobody is going to understand it, don’t you think?

Yet here’s a government-issued piece intending, presumably, to explain a new tax (I saved it because it is just so bad):
"From July 1, 2010, until June 30, 2018, with the introduction of the HST in Ontario and British Columbia, large businesses – generally those making taxable supplies worth more than $10 million annually, and certain specified financial institutions – will be required to repay or 'recapture' the portion of any available input tax credits (ITCs) that is attributable to the provincial part of the HST that becomes payable, or is paid without having become payable, in respect of a specified property or service that is acquired, or brought into one of these provinces, by a large business for consumption or use by that business in those provinces."
Phew! Don't you feel quite breathless reading that? For reading ease, the higher the score, the better; we should aim for at least 60 to be considered "plain English." Running this piece through readability stats showed that it fell off the Flesch Reading Ease scale at MINUS 29.5.
The Flesch-Kincaid Grade Level formula shows the level of education needed to read a piece. Aiming for an average grade level of 9 or less helps busy, impatient readers get the point. But the original passage hit the mythical grade level of 36.6.

I tackled a rewrite, using many of these eight ways to improve dense writing:
  1. Shorten words, aiming for an average of five characters per word; "use" instead of "'utilize" is a great example.
  2. Cut out unnecessary words; turn "in order to" into "to."
  3. Break thoughts into more than one sentence.
  4. Tighten and shorten sentences, aiming for an average of 14 words per sentence.
  5. Break paragraphs into fewer sentences, averaging just two or three.
  6. Make lists or bullet points.
  7. Write to the reader ("you").
  8. Use active vs. passive writing ("the business acquired the service" vs. "a service acquired by the business").
Here's my rewrite:
"Large businesses will see changes between July 1, 2010, and June 30, 2018 due to a new tax in Ontario and British Columbia. This affects certain banking institutions and businesses making taxable goods worth more than $10 million a year. These businesses must repay a portion of tax credits related to the provincial part of the HST owed on a specific property/service. This property /service is one brought into either province to be used or consumed by that business."

Better, although still far from perfect. Using the readability tool again revealed a Reading Ease score of 61.8 and a Grade Level of 10.6. Of course, to keep the lawyers happy, you would probably need a disclaimer about disputes being guided by the official documents, yada yada...

What other techniques do you use to help your readers? Have you tackled any similarly challenging rewrites? Hit "reply" and tell me about it! And let me know if you'd like some help rewriting for readability.

Images: Confused woman by David Castillo Dominici and Sue by Chris Salvo,

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