Copy


Issue 2    April, 2013


Sue HornerDear Sue,
The easier we make it to read our newsletters and other material, the more people will read, understand and retain. You can help readers by cutting sentence length, staying away from jargon and picking short words that are easy to skim. True, you may meet with resistance from copy reviewers – engineers and lawyers spring to mind – but be strong. Cite readability stats, or mention that you want to make sure people whose first language isn’t English will understand it.
Sue's signature

Fight for readability

Fight jargonNear my computer is a chart from the American Press Institute, which lists word count per sentence and how much of it readers will understand. At the top of the scale, averaging fewer than eight words leads to 100 per cent comprehension. At the bottom is an average of 43 words per sentence, for which you can expect at best nine per cent understanding, or more likely zero.

It follows that the fastest way to increase reader understanding is to reduce average sentence length; API suggests eight to 14 words. You can also:
  • Use simple words of one or two syllables ("use" instead of "utilize").
  • Use active sentences, aiming for no more than 10 per cent passive. Word helpfully highlights sentences that are passive.
  • Aim for a grade level of 9 or less, using the Flesch-Kincaid test. This doesn't mean you are "dumbing down" your copy but making it easier for busy people to skim and still understand.
If you did nothing else but cut wordy sentences, you would boost understanding. Here are some recent real-life examples of wordiness and their shorter options:
  • We are in need of... (We need)
  • In the month of October... (In October)
  • In support of... (Supporting)
  • Company X is supportive of... (Company X supports)
  • They were appreciative of... (They appreciated)
  • I am desirous of... (I want to)
  • Has engaged in a process of reviewing... (Has reviewed)
  • Don't be assumptive... (Don't assume)
  • How do you conduct an assessment... (How do you assess)
  • It's a strategy that addresses the incorporation of... (The strategy incorporates/includes)
  • We will need to get in contact with... (We need to contact/reach)
  • Have a propensity to... (Are likely to)
  • Was illustrative of... (Illustrated/showed)
What other wordy writing have you run across? Have you found it difficult to convince a reviewer that simple is better? Hit "reply" and tell me about it! And let me know if you need help fighting the battle against jargon and wordiness.

Images: Boxing glove by "hin255" and last month's Spade in Lettuce Garden from "Dan," both photos from FreeDigitalPhotos.net. Sue by Chris Salvo, salvophoto.com.

Related links

Cut and paste text into Online-Utility.org's calculator to test readability

David Meerman Scott collected the 25 worst gobbledygook phrases in 2009; sadly, they're still hanging around ("world class," anyone?)

Jargon, clichés and other words to avoid, according to the Washington Post.

From the Red Jacket Diaries blog

From the blog vault: Wherein I describe an announcement with one sentence of 48 words, nearly 3.5 times the recommended length

My report on a recent IABC panel on social media use

Three tips for when you must write about a potentially boring topic or what I call "spinning straw into gold."
 





 






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