“Anyone who finds himself putting down several commas close to one another should reflect that he is making himself disagreeable and question whether it is necessary.”
H.W. Fowler, English lexicographer
Sentence length one of top 2 predictors of readable copy
A professor of English Literature at the University of Nebraska was the first person to link sentence length to comprehension.
In the 1880s, Lucius Adelno Sherman took the first statistical look at writing when he calculated sentence length in historical literature. In his book, The Analytics of Literature (1893), he shared how sentences were growing shorter over time:
- Pre-Elizabethan times: Sentences averaged 50 words
- Elizabethan times: 45 words
- Victorian times: 29 words
- Sherman’s own time: 23 words
Today, sentences average 20 words, reports readability expert William H. DuBay in Unlocking Language (PDF).
In the 130 years since Sherman started counting words per sentence, dozens of other researchers have proven what Sherman posed: Shorter sentences make for easier reading.
Indeed, DuBay writes, sentence length and word length have been proven in the lab — again and again — to be the two strongest indicators of reading ease.
Write sentences to be read.
Bottom line? To make your copy easier to read and understand, the studies show, write sentences that are:
And reduce the number of:
- Dependent, embedded and other clauses
- Phrases per sentence
- Words before the verb
How do you keep your sentences short and easy to understand?
“No iron can pierce the heart with such force as a period put just at the right place.”
Isaac Babel, Russian journalist
Three ways to shorten your sentences
The story goes that when future columnist James J. Kilpatrick was a young newspaper reporter, he wrote lots of deadly long sentences. Finally, in frustration, the city editor gave Kilpatrick a piece of paper covered with dots.
“These interesting objects, which apparently you have never encountered before, are known as periods,” the editor said. “You would do well to use them.”
We’d all do well to use more periods. As William Zinsser, author of On Writing Well, wrote:
“There’s not much to be said about the period, except that most writers don’t reach it soon enough.”
Here are three ways to reach the period sooner:
1. Search and destroy conjunctions.
Sentences too long? Use Microsoft Word’s “find” function to search for conjunctions. They include:
When one of my writing coachees tried this trick, she found 23 “and’s” in a 500-word article.
When you find them, see whether you can replace them with a period.
2. Break it with bullets.
If you have a series of three or more items, break them out of the sentence into a bulleted or numbered list. Readers perceive bullets as separate sentences and paragraphs.
This is especially important online, where readers skim even more than they do in print. In one test, usability expert Jakob Nielsen made a Web page 47 percent more usable by breaking copy up and lifting ideas off the page.
3. Don’t ‘fix’ fragments.
Mrs. Webb, your 3rd-grade teacher probably counseled you to avoid sentence fragments.
Mrs. Webb was wrong.
Sentence fragments can help you:
- Create drama
- Make a transition
- Emphasize an important idea
- Change the pace of your piece
- Make your copy sound conversational
- And, of course, make sentences shorter
Used well, fragments can make your copy tighter and more interesting.
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.
“Try to imagine the costs of poor writing … in business, government, and law. The costs are almost beyond imagining, and certainly beyond calculating.”
Joseph Kimble, chair of the Thomas M. Cooley Law School’s Research & Writing Department
How much does bad writing cost your organization?
Bad writing causes 40 percent of the cost of managing business transactions, writes William H. DuBay, a readability expert at Impact Information, in Working with Plain Language (PDF).
In his plain language treatise, “Writing for Dollars, Writing to Please,” Joseph Kimble, chair of the Thomas M. Cooley Law School’s Research & Writing Department goes beyond trying to imagine those costs. He shares 25 case studies of organizations that have saved time and money and otherwise improved business practices by making their copy easier to read. Among them:
- Save money. FedEx saved $400,000 per year by rewriting operations manuals to make it 80 percent less time consuming for users to find the information they were looking for. That doesn’t count the costs of mistakes when users couldn’t find the right answers.
- Save time. When the FCC rewrote CB regulations in plain language in 1977, the agency was able to reassign five full-time staff members. Before the rewrites, all five were needed to answer questions about the regulations from the public.
- Move people to act. When the U.S. Army rewrote a memo to 129 officers, suggesting that they perform a specific task, those who got the more readable version were twice as likely to act on the day they received it.
- Improve service. After technical writers at General Electric rewrote software manuals, customer calls asking questions about the software dropped by 125 calls per customer. The company estimates that it saves up to $375,000 a year for each business customer with the revised manual.
- Increase reading speed. The U.S. Navy learned that it could save $27 to $37 million a year in officer time by rewriting its business memos. Officers were able to read the revised memos in 17 to 27 percent less time.
Move your audience to act
Want to deliver copy that gets read, understood and acted upon?
- Get it off your desk: Invite Ann’s team to handle a persuasive writing or editing project.
- Polish staff skills: Bring Ann to your organization for a Think Like a Reader workshop.
- Boost your own abilities: Work with Ann to Think Like a Reader in one-on-one writing coaching sessions. Or find out about Ann’s next Think Like a Reader webinar.
- Learn more: Read Ann’s Think Like a Reader toolkit. And get free writing tips every month when you subscribe to our e-zine.
- Join the club: Find dozens of persuasive writing tipsheets at RevUpReadership.com.
“Email may well be your most productive marketing tool.”
Dan Zarrella, viral marketing scientist, HubSpot
1 in 3 wake up, check email immediately
Thirty-five percent of mobile workers check their email first thing in the morning, before getting dressed or having a cup of coffee.
That’s according to a 2011 study by iPass (pdf). The Enterprise Mobility Services company defines mobile workers as folks who use mobile devices to access networks other than the company LAN or WLAN for work.
Woke up, got out of bed …
iPass researchers learned that mobile workers check email:
- First thing in the morning, before doing anything else: 35%
- After dressing: 17%
- After having coffee or tea: 14%
- After arriving at the office: 12%
- After breakfast: 10%
- After starting a commute: 8%
- After entering a home office: 4%
Does your iPhone keep you warm at night?
But that’s nothing compared to the 38 percent who check their smartphones when they wake up at night. Or the 43 percent who store their smartphones within arm’s reach of their beds.
iPass surveyed 3,700 mobile enterprise employees at more than 1,100 enterprises worldwide.
Email dead? Don’t bet on it. How are you using this addictive medium?
Reach readers online
Want to get the word out on the Web?
- Get it off your desk: Bring 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. And find out about Ann’s upcoming webinars on writing for the Web and social media.
- 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 tipsheets on reaching readers online at RevUpReadership.com.
“Budget dust: Year-end money that must be spent before it is swept away by the cold winds of a new fiscal year.”
Invest your year-end money before it gets swept away
‘Tis the season for many of us to use what remains of our 2011 budget … or lose it altogether. Here are five ways to invest your budget dust this year to improve communications for years to come:
- Schedule 2012 writing workshops today. Lock in 2011 prices for 2012 events and save 5 percent when you prepay my speaking fee.
- Learn something new every day with Rev Up Readership Gold memberships for the whole team. Enjoy group discounts when five or more of your colleagues join at the same time.
- Get a publication or website review. It’s like having a mentor by your side.
- Book one-on-one writing coaching. Make me your personal writing trainer.
- Build a better library with the Power Pack. For those who are serious about developing their skills: Get all my handbooks, reports, cheat-sheets, recommended readings and free bonus supplements — 19 learning tools in all — and save $243.
“What an incredibly valuable session. I plan to head home and think and write in a new way.”
Leslie Raynes, PR director, AKC Marketing
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 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. 4. Writing That Sells, a full-day workshop for (PRSA)
- 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
- Danville, Penn.: Dec. 14
- Houston, Dec. 7-8
- Kansas City, Mo.: Sept. 27
- Louisville, Ky.: Oct. 28
- Memphis: Oct. 12
- Nashville, Tenn.: Oct. 11
- New York City: Nov. 4-9
- Orlando: Oct. 16-17
- 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
- Presenting writing workshops for Thrivent Financial and Padilla Speers Beardsley
- Coaching communicators to improve their writing
Find out when I’m coming to your neighborhood, learn when you can sign up for one of my programs and otherwise keep up with my calendar.
Keep in touch via:
- ComPRehension, PRSA’s blog of public relations strategies and tactics
- Wylie Communications feed, click RSS
- Wylie’s Writing Tips