Issue 2 April, 2013
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.
Fight for readability
Near 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.
- 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)
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.