“Johnny can’t read.”
Rudolf Flesch, creator of the Flesch Reading Ease test
21% of U.S. adults have trouble using a street map
If you’re writing for a broad audience, you might consider starting with eighth on the Flesch-Kincaid test. Ratchet up or down from there depending on your audience members’ sophistication.
Why so low?
In 1993, the U.S. Department of Education conducted the first National Adult Literacy Survey (NALS), the most comprehensive, statistically reliable source on literacy in the United States. It studied 26,000 U.S. adults, representing 191 million people.
Three literacy scales. The study looked at:
- Prose literacy — the ability to search, understand and use information from linear copy, like articles.
- Document literacy — the ability to search, understand and use information from nonlinear materials, like maps.
- Quantitative literacy — the ability to identify and perform computations using numbers from printed material.
The results? Nearly half of the Americans surveyed weren’t literate enough to read a sports article and identify the age at which the swimmer began swimming competitively, according to “Adult Literacy in America” (pdf), a report based on that study.
Percentage of U.S. adults who can read at different estimated grade levels,
according to the 1993 National Adult Literacy Survey (NALS)
Since 1847, scholars and others have been measuring how hard copy is to read. Over the years, these folks have created some 200 readability indexes — from the Flesch to the Fry, from the Fog to the SMOG, from the Spache to the LIX.
All of these indexes boil readability down to a mathematical formula. Those formulas usually comprise two factors:
- Sentence length. This measures “syntactic,” or structural, difficulty. Most formulas measure the average number of words per sentence.
- Word length. This measures “semantic,” or meaning, difficulty. Most formulas measure the average number of syllables or characters per word.
One way to measure your copy’s readability is to use STORYtoolz readability statistics. Just enter your message, and STORYtoolz will run it through seven popular indexes. You’ll find out all kinds of fascinating details about your piece, from the number of characters per word to how often you use the passive voice.
To improve your reading grade level, just reduce the length of your sentences and words. Your readers will be glad you did.
Worried about talking down to your audience? Don’t. Most audience members — even brain surgeons and rocket scientists — are tired, busy and overwhelmed with information. They’ll be happy to get your copy in a more digestible package.
Keep in mind that the front page of The Wall Street Journal is written at the ninth-grade level. This piece, which I wrote for a highly literate audience — you! — weighs in at the eighth grade reading level, according to Flesch-Kincaid.
How much harder would you like it to be?
Cut Through the Clutter
Want to make every piece you write easier to read and understand?
- Get it off your desk: Invite Ann’s team in to handle a special writing or editing project.
- Polish staff skills: Bring Ann to your organization for a Cut Through the Clutter workshop.
- Boost your own abilities: Work with Ann to cut the clutter in your own copy in one-on-one writing coaching. Or find out about Ann’s next Cut Through the Clutter webinar.
- Learn more: Read Ann’s Cut Through the Clutter manual. And get free writing tips every month when you subscribe to our e-zine.
- Join the club: Get the whole story in the latest issue of Rev Up Readership. And find dozens of Cut Through the Clutter tipsheets on RevUpReadership.com.
“Part of the craft of journalism for more than a century has been to think up clever titles and headlines, and Google comes along and says, ‘The heck with that.'”
Ed Canale, vice president for strategy and new media at The Sacramento Bee
5 ways to write for Google and people
When The Washington Post ran an article about Conan O’Brien’s refusal to accept a later time slot on NBC, the original, print headline said:
“Better never than late”
The Web version:
“Conan O’Brien won’t give up ‘Tonight Show’ time slot
to make room for Jay Leno”
That’s what happens when writers optimize headlines for Google. We move proper nouns, keywords and full names to the front of the headline, crowding out wit and whimsy.
But maybe it doesn’t have to be that way. Here are five ways to work around the restrictions of Web heads:
1. Write two heads.
Put the literal, search- and click-friendly headline on the content page. Place a feature headline on your own homepage or sub-indexes.
2. Use your title tag and URL.
Your title tag gets more Google juice than your Web headline. So put your literal headline in the title tag and put the feature headline on the content page. The New York Times, for instance, sometimes packs keywords into its title tags, but not into the page headline.
3. Use your URL.
Your URL also gets more Google juice than your Web headline. So put your literal headline in the URL and put the feature headline on the content page. The New York Times also uses the URL, but not the page headline, for keywords.
4. Use the deck.
You could also use the headline for the literal story, the deck for the creative or benefits-focused one.
- Literal headline: [Topic word] does what
- Benefits-oriented deck: You benefit how
- Creative deck: Clever wordplay or twist of phrase
5. Be witty and clear.
You’re brilliant, right? Why not write a headline that’s both creative and telling? The pros are pulling it off by writing:
- A literal kicker with a clever headline. “Witty headlines: Black and white and dead all over,” writes corporate communicator Kevin Allen.
- A topic word subject with a clever verb phrase. “Meteor Impact Theory Takes a Hit,” writes a Wired copyeditor. And a Kansas City Business Journal writer comes up with “Mutual of Omaha Bank will deposit full-service branch in Kansas City.”
Granted, there’s no danger that readers will injure themselves in a laughing fit over these headlines, but these writers do manage to make their Web heads both literal and creative.
Reach readers online
Want to master the art of writing for the Web?
- Get it off your desk: Invite Ann’s team in to write Web copy for your organization.
- Polish staff skills: Bring Ann to your organization for a Web-writing workshop.
- Boost your own abilities: Work with Ann to polish your Web writing skills with one-on-one writing coaching sessions. Or find out about Ann’s next Microcontent webinar.
- Learn more: Read Ann’s Web-writing learning tools. And get free writing tips every month when you subscribe to our e-zine.
- Join the club: Get the whole story in the latest issue of Rev Up Readership. And find dozens of Web writing tipsheets on RevUpReadership.com..
“The question is not what you look at, but what you see.”
Henry David Thoreau, American author and philosopher
Observational stories put readers in the scene
For his latest book, Uncommon Carriers, John McPhee:
- Rode from Atlanta to Tacoma alongside Don Ainsworth, owner and operator of a 65-foot, 18-wheel chemical tanker carrying hazmats
- Attended ship-handling school on a pond in the foothills of the French Alps, where skippers of the largest ocean ships refine their capabilities in 20-foot scale models
- Traveled by canoe up the canal-and-lock commercial waterways that Henry David Thoreau navigated in a homemade skiff in 1839
To get their stories, other writers have journeyed with a teenage boy from the Honduras to North Carolina to find his mother, eaten nothing but Big Macs for a month and traveled cross-country with Einstein’s brain.
When it comes to description, there’s nothing like being there. And there’s nothing like taking your reader to the scene through observational stories.
For an observational story, you go on an adventure, then recreate that experience in a collection of scenes for your reader.
Make mine short.
Most of us don’t have the rest of our lives to research a story. But you don’t have to drive Einstein’s brain around America to pull this story form off.
You can research an observational story in:
- One day. As an editorial assistant for Folio: magazine, Steve Wilson once spent 14 hours hanging out at a Manhattan bookstore to write an observational story about how people looked at magazines.
- Half a day. Wilson’s previous job was tougher: He tested rain gear for another magazine by going through a car wash on foot nine times. (Even I have never asked an writer to get pressure-washed and sprayed with hot wax more than eight times.)
- A few hours. I once turned a profile of a personal nutritionist into an observational story by having her give my pantry a makeover (she discovered a Chef Boyardee pizza mix from 1989), then going grocery shopping with her.
- Two hours or less. A friend who works for H&R Block tries out the company’s tax software before writing an observational pitch about it.
For a profile of a Farmland Industries CEO, I once spent a day with Harry Cleberg touring the Kansas City Farmland facilities. Rather than a traditional profile, I used vignettes from the road to reveal Cleberg’s character in little glimpses, as it had been revealed to me. Here’s the lead:
“His desk sits in the corner office of Farmland Industries’ headquarters building in North Kansas City, but Harry Cleberg’s heart is here: among the 50-pound bags of fertilizer, soybean seed and milk replacer for calves at the Central Cooperative Inc. in Adrian, Mo.
“He gossips and teases, chatting with owner Ben Griffith and manager Owen Highly about the height of corn in Colby, Kan., and how much milo got planted before this early-June rain turned the fields into muck.
“’How many people work at a local co-op?’ he asks the staff at large, scooping a fistful of dried molasses out of a bag and offering me a taste of the feed sweetener.
“’About half!’ he answers with a squeal, his eyebrows jutting like exclamation points from his wire-rimmed glasses. And Owen and Roger and Chuck, gathered around to shoot the breeze on this grizzly morning with Harry — Harry, just plain Harry, none of this ‘Mr.’ stuff for him — bust out laughing, too.”
Granted, I’m no McPhee. But I did wind up with a much livelier story because of the time I spent in the field.
Make Your Copy More Creative
Want to communicate better with creative copy?
- Get it off your desk: Invite Ann’s team to handle a creative writing or editing project.
- Polish staff skills: Bring Ann to your organization for a Make Your Copy More Creative workshop.
- Boost your own abilities: Work with Ann to Make Your Copy More Creative in one-on-one writing coaching. Or find out about Ann’s next Art of the Storyteller webinar.
- Learn more: Read Ann’s learning tools on storytelling, metaphor and human interest. And get free writing tips every month when you subscribe to our e-zine.
- Join the club: Get the whole story in the latest issue of Rev Up Readership. Find dozens of tipsheets on creative copywriting at RevUpReadership.com.
“Bad terminology is the enemy of good thinking. When companies or investment professionals use terms such as ‘EBITDA’ and ‘pro forma,’ they want you to unthinkingly accept concepts that are dangerously flawed.”
Warren Buffett, CEO, Berkshire Hathaway Inc.
‘Pet waste removal service’ scoops up worst buzzword
“Solution,” according to the Gable Group’s late, great Jargonator, is one of the most overused buzzwords of the day:
“Companies used to sell products, now they sell solutions. Dog food bowls are pet-feeding solutions, chairs are sitting solutions, cars are transportation solutions.”
Now you can add to that list Shadoobies, the dog poop solution.
Is there a solution to the “solution” problem? What word would you use instead? One approach: Focus on benefits instead of features. How about “Never scoop dog poop again”?
Start Making Sense
Want to get the gobbledygook out of your copy?
- Get it off your desk: Invite Ann’s team in to handle a special writing or editing project.
- Polish staff skills: Bring Ann to your organization for a Start Making Sense workshop.
- Boost your own abilities: Work with Ann to get the gobbledygook out of your own copy in one-on-one writing coaching. Or find out about Ann’s next Start Making Sense webinar.
- Learn more: Read Ann’s Start Making Sense manual. And get free writing tips every month when you subscribe to our e-zine.
- Join the club: Get the whole story in the latest issue of Rev Up Readership. And find dozens of tips for getting the gobbledygook out on RevUpReadership.com.
“Since Ann Wylie became editorial consultant of Northern Update, our client magazine has skyrocketed from a mediocre publication to one that is emulated throughout the industry.”
Roberta J. Laughlin, vice president, Mutual Funds Marketing, Northern Trust
Get a report card on your communications
Too often, the job of producing communications leaves little time for considering what you’re doing well and what opportunities you have for improvement. Our communication report card can help.
Send us a sample of your website, publication or writing, and we’ll send you a report card on its strengths and weaknesses, plus more than two dozen metrics for improvement. Your report card will help you:
- Increase readability
- Lift your ideas off the page with scannable copy
- Polish your headlines, links and other display copy
- Otherwise improve your writing
Wylie Communications president Ann Wylie — whose own communications have earned more than 60 awards, including two Gold Quills — will review your work.
Ann’s workshop was “a light-bulb moment.”
Amanda Lenar, public relations account supervisor, Erwin-Penland
Polish your skills at one of these events
Alas, I can’t invite you to the in-house seminars I present for private organizations. But everyone’s invited to these upcoming public seminars in:
- Chicago on Aug. 22. “Web writing Boot Camp,” a full-day workshop for the Public Relations Society of America (PRSA)
- Nashville, Tenn., on Oct. 11. “Think Like a Reader,” a half-day session for the Public Relations Society of America (PRSA) Nashville
- New Orleans on July 24. “Make Your Copy More Creative,” a series of breakout sessions for the Agricultural Media Summit
- New York on Nov. 4. “Writing That Sells,” a full-day workshop for PRSA
- Louisville, Ky., on Oct. 28. “Writing for the Web,” a breakout session at the Ragan Corporate Writers & Editors Conference
- New York on Nov. 9. “Writing for the Web,” a breakout session at the Ragan Corporate Writers & Editors Conference
- Orlando on Oct. 16-17. “Writing for Social Media” and “Think Like a Reader,” a pre-conference and breakout session for the 2011 PRSA International Conference
Would you like to attend? Please contact meeting planners directly for details.
Can’t make these events? If you’d like to bring me in for a workshop at your organization, contact me.
Cut your training costs when you piggyback your program
Save money when you piggyback your workshop by scheduling it when I’m already “in the neighborhood.” Book your program the day before or after another organization’s and split my airfare and ground transportation with the other group.
Ask about piggybacking on my upcoming engagements in:
- Baltimore: Oct. 24
- Chicago: Aug. 22
- Cincinnati: Oct. 27
- Columbia, Md.: Nov. 16
- Louisville, Ky.: Oct. 26, 28
- Nashville, Tenn.: Oct. 11
- New Orleans: July 24
- New York City: Nov. 4-9
- Orlando: Oct. 16-17
- Portland, Ore.: Aug. 1-30
- Sacramento, Calif.: Dec. 1
Save even more: Ask about my communication association discounts and second-day fee reductions.
Contact me to discuss piggybacking.
The folks at Wylie Communications have been enjoying:
- Writing and editing magazine, newsletter and executive communications copy for Saint Luke’s Health System, Cassidian and Carnegie-Mellon University
- Presenting writing workshops for TD Ameritrade, General Dynamics-AIS, General Dynamics-C4S and the Ragan Corporate Communicators Conference
- Presenting webinars for the International Association of Business Communicators (IABC) and the Public Relations Society of America (PRSA)
- Coaching communicators to improve their writing