Listen up, Ciceros of corporate communications. Hark, Virginia Woolfs of the white paper. (Or should that be Woolves?)
Your prolix prose isn't holding readers' interest, says Ann Wylie of Wylie Communications. Your lengthy sentences are pythons that loop themselves into knots. They drag subordinating conjunctions around. You are backed into thoughts by passive verbs.
Wylie urged communicators at Ragan's Corporate Communicators Conference this week to write simply, even if your audience comprises Harvard professors and MacArthur geniuses.
That doesn't mean dumbing it down.
We hear what you're grumbling. You think that to write simply you must dumb it down. Wylie is ready for your objections.
Some object that they write for super-smart executives or school superintendents. Wylie responds that such audiences especially are "buried in information. So one thing we need to do is respect their time and make it easier for them to read."
Besides, 40 percent of Americans read so poorly that they have trouble finding places on maps or comparing viewpoints in two editorials, Wylie says. The writer's job is to reach them where they are.
Here are some tips for doing that:
Keep sentences short.
One study shows that with an average of eight words per sentence, comprehension runs 100 percent. Fourteen words is a good average to shoot for, Wylie says.
"In my shop, we don't want any one sentence to be more than 21 words," Wylie says.
Vary sentence length.
Copy that consists of nothing but short sentences sounds choppy. Wylie praised the rhythm in a story from the New York Daily News.
"A man's life is at stake," it reads. "His name is Vito Valenti. On Sept. 11 he was caught in the maelstrom and stayed at Ground Zero as a volunteer to help in the frantic rescue and recovery operation. And today he is dying."
Use short words.
Long words bog down your prose. The Wall Street Journal writes about the most complex issues in business, and they use an average of 4.8 letters per word, Wylie says.
If that's not enough to get us to use shorter words, consider this: "If you want to go viral on Twitter, write in words of one to two syllables," Wylie says.
Writers often think it's a virtue to pack more information into a piece. But Wylie suggests keeping your copy to fewer than 600 words.
"The less information we give them, usually, the better off they are," she says.
Write shorter paragraphs.
If you're writing for print, use about three sentences per paragraph. For the Web, make it two.
Avoid passive voice.
An editor friend of Wylie's had to rewrite copy by engineers. Most employed passive verbs.
She was delighted one day to run across a piece that was written in active voice. She phoned up the writer.
A prickly sort, he seemed offended that she would even remark on the matter. "He said, 'I know that each sentence needs a subject and a verb, and the subject should be doing the verb.'"
Wylie told her audience, "That's all you need to know."
Avoid auxiliary verbs.
Verbs like were, to have, shall, will, may, and can bog down a sentence. She offered an example:
Bad: Young men in wedding dresses were darting about the city, celebrating St. Pat's Day.
Better: Young men in wedding dresses darted about the city, celebrating St. Pat's Day.
Search for conjunctions.
Words such as and, but, and or are often culprits in building convoluted sentences. If your sentences are long, search for these words and drop in periods instead.
What is your CEO's favorite publication? Do the execs want you to sound like The New York Times or The Wall Street Journal? Then check those publications in a readability calculator and benchmark your prose on matters like sentence length. Use the benchmarks to measure and improve your copy.
STORYtoolz also helps you to report internally. "You report click-through rates," Wylie says. "You report your Web statistics." So report on readability to demonstrate how well you meet your standards.
Use online tools.
Wylie recommends Edit Central's readability calculator, the Gunning Fog Index calculator, Juicy Studios online readability tester, and StoryToolz.
(Whew. As a whole, this story comes in at the fifth-grade level. I'm delighted—I think.)
Russell Working is a staff writer for Ragan.com.