Streamline your sentences | November 2009

“No iron can pierce the heart with such force as a period put just at the right place.”
— Isaac Babel, Russian journalist

Streamline your sentences

Add a word, reduce comprehension

Readers get lost in long sentences.

If too many words separate the subject, the verb and the object, readers have to go hunting for them. Then they have to string your sentence back together for you. And how many times are they going to do that?

So how long is too long for your average sentence length? That depends on the level of comprehension you seek.

The longer the sentences, the less readers understand, according to research by the American Press Institute (API). The research, based on studies of 410 newspapers, correlated the average number of words in a sentence with reader comprehension.

Here’s what the study showed:

  • When the average sentence length was fewer than eight words, readers understood 100 percent of the story.
  • Even at nine to 14 words, readers could understand more than 90 percent of the information.
  • But move up to 43-word sentences, and comprehension dropped to less than 10 percent.

And what about that 147-word sentence the VP wants you to run in tomorrow’s blog post? Readers not only don’t understand what they’ve read, they also forget their Social Security numbers. It’s a net loss of knowledge — not exactly our goal as communicators.

Source: Ann Wylie, Cut Through the Clutter, Wylie Communications Inc., 2005

“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, British grammarian, in Modern English Usage

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Starts Nov. 9!

Cut Through the Clutter

New ways to make every piece you write easier to read and understand

Want to learn how to make your stories, paragraphs, sentences, phrases and words easier to read and understand?

If so, you’ll learn new tips, tricks, tools and techniques at my upcoming Cut Through the Clutter webinar for Shel Holtz Webinars.

Even if you’ve attended my Cut Through the Clutter workshops … you’ll learn new approaches.

Even if you’ve read my Cut Through the Clutter manual … you’ll get new insights and ideas.

Even if you’ve studied all 150-plus Cut Through the Clutter tipsheets on … you’ll leave this webinar with new tips and tricks for making your copy shorter and more accessible.

How do I know? Because I’ve learned so much just preparing for the Cut Through the Clutter webinar!

Here’s what’s new:

  • New video demos. In this webinar, I’ll show you how to use Google to get the gobbledygook out of your copy; a quick way to see whether your paragraphs are monotonous or rhythmic; how to use Microsoft Word’s “find” function to get rid of long sentences; and how to measure, manage and report Average Reading Time.
  • New standards for the length of a press release, CEO message, magazine article and tweet (turns out 140 characters is actually too long).
  • New tips for finding your focus, editing before you write (no more valuable time wasted overwriting than unwriting what you’ve overwritten) and more.
  • New examples. See how Sprint writes about jargon to make sure employees know what everyone’s talking about. Model the way Pulitzer Prize winners use sentence length to punch out their most powerful points.
  • New research to use to sell these approaches to management. Find out why employees aren’t finishing your CEO column; why searchers can’t find your website; and why the more information you give your readers, the worse decisions they’re likely to make.
  • New resources. You’ll find a free online course for revising your copy, new tools for defining your terms online and other new resources.
  • New quotes. Learn why Kurt Vonnegut thought the semicolon was like old age, what Tom Wolfe says about long sentences and trustworthiness and other hilarious and insightful comments to quote to dazzle your colleagues and clients.

Register now.

About the webinar

I’m a client of, as well as a trainer for, Shel Holtz Webinars. I’ve always been surprised and delighted with how much I get from the programs — with very little investment of time or money on my part.

Every Shel Holtz Webinar consists of five lectures, with a new lecture posted each Monday for five weeks. Lectures present a mix of text and multimedia … but all you need to participate is your Web browser.

This webinar begins on Nov. 9. But you can drop in whenever it’s convenient for you — there’s no place you have to be on any particular day or time.

If you haven’t participated in one of Shel’s webinars before, check out this introductory video.

Register now.

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“There’s not much to be said about the period, except that most writers don’t reach it soon enough.”
— William Zinsser, author of On Writing Well

Avoid ‘pointless babble’

Write tweets that matter

In a recent “Dilbert” cartoon, Dilbert and Wally beg their pointy-haired boss to keep them constantly updated on all his daily activities via Twitter.

“We find you fascinating,” Wally says. “Oh, yes. Every little thing you do is interesting.”

Fast forward to the last frame, where Wally and Dilbert are sitting with their feet up in the conference room, drinking coffee and checking Twitter on their mobile phones.

“Where’s idiot boy now?” Wally asks.

“In the parking lot,” Dilbert answers. “No need to look busy yet.”

Me here now

Do you really think your social media network finds every little thing you do fascinating?

Four out of five Twitter users seem to, according to a new study by Rutgers University professors Mor Naaman and Jeffrey Boase.

The professors dissected more than 3,000 tweets from more than 350 Twitter users and concluded that 80 percent of users are “meformers” — those who write mostly “me now” status updates. “Me now” updates cover everyday activities, social lives, feelings, thoughts and emotions, according to the researchers.

This study comes on the heels of research showing that 40 percent of all tweets are pointless babble, along the lines of “Eating a sandwich now,” according to a random sample of 2,000 messages by Pear Analytics.

No wonder 57 percent of Generation Y members believe social media is for narcissists, according to a new study by San Diego State University psychology professor Jean Twenge.

“No one cares if you’re On the way to the airport, Checking bags or Arrived in Kansas,” Avery Roth, 23, a public relations coordinator in Dallas, told USA Today. “People who update their status hourly need to cool it. It’s also a little vain.”

So how can you write tweets that matter, instead of narcissistic, pointless babble?

Get the word out with social media

If you want to learn to make your tweets, blog postings and nanocontent more relevant, valuable and interesting, please join me at PRSA’s Nov. 12 teleseminar, “How to write for social media.” You’ll learn how to craft copy that gets the word out via social media.

Specifically, you’ll learn how to:

  • Use the 70-20-10 rule for engaging your followers, plus other tips for making sure your status updates are welcome guests, not intrusive pests.
  • Pass the “Who cares?” test — and four other techniques for becoming a resource, not a bore, on social media.
  • Get retweeted: Five steps for expanding your influence and reach on Twitter.
  • Tweet like the FBI. Write dramatic, compelling status tweets.
  • Draw people in with nanocontent: Convince blog visitors to click — in 11 characters or less.
  • Tweak your texts and tweets: Get your message across in 140 characters.
  • Make your posts personable: There’s a reason they call it “social” media.

Attending the PRSA World Conference in San Diego in November? Learn even more: Join me for a half-day pre-conference session on writing for social media there.

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“Twitter is a great place to tell the world what you’re thinking before you’ve had a chance to think about it.”
— Chris Pirillo (@chrispirillo), Web guru and blogger

Work out with these word tools

Online resources build your wordplay skills

My favorite headline last month was a title recommended on Twitter for the balloon family reality TV show:

The Flying None

How can you write clever headlines like that? Work out your brain for wordplay using “75 Awesome Tools, Games, and Links for Word Lovers.”

You’ll find tools for improving your vocabulary, building your Scrabble and crossword puzzle skills, playing along with Lingo contestants — even translating the CEO’s message into Pig Latin.

Give it a try. Because the more you play with your words, the more effective your wordplay will be.

Rev Up Readership Gold and Silver members, get more free resources for practicing your wordplay.

Rev Up Readership Gold members, get more than 60 tipsheets on playing with your words.

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“Words that roll off the tongue stay in the brain.”
— Sam Horn, author, POP! Stand Out In Any Crowd

Record returns in Detroit

How to draw a crowd for your chapter workshop

When IABC Detroit booked me in August 2008 for a daylong workshop this spring, I was thrilled. This would be my first trip to Motown, and chapter leaders thought they could generate a big turnout.

By late fall, I was waiting for the cancelation call.

It’s old news that Detroit has the highest unemployment rate in the nation. To say that IABC Detroit was facing financial challenges as sponsorship, membership and professional development dollars dried up … well, that would be an understatement.

Still, chapter leaders decided to move ahead with the workshop. And was I glad they did! Some 95 people registered for the seminar — way above the chapter’s break-even goal of 70. About 30 percent of attendees were not IABC members, so the program introduced them to the benefits of membership.

How did IABC Detroit bring in a record audience in the midst of a bad economy and massive layoffs? Chapter leader Debra Salem shared these secrets:

  • Start early. The chapter started promoting the event six months in advance. That helped draw professionals with money left in the budget at the end of the year.
  • Reach out. IABC Detroit marketed the event to half a dozen other local communication associations, the IABC Heritage region and IABC and PRSA chapters within a three-hour commute. Most of those organizations also promoted the event to their members.
  • Get around. Chapter leaders promoted the workshop on the chapter website, on local and regional calendar listings and via press releases distributed to newspapers throughout the state and through PR Newswire.
  • Market often. The chapter sent email notes to their own members about every two weeks.
  • Offer a discount. IABC Detroit offered an early bird rate as well as a member discount.
  • Get help. While sponsorship dollars were hard to come by, member companies did provide design and printing services.

The chapter achieved its objectives of diversifying revenue sources, reaching non-IABC members, providing valuable professional development that appealed to young professionals and seasoned communicators alike.

Plus, IABC Detroit serves as a great reminder to other chapters: If you hold a special workshop or seminar, they will come — despite seemingly overwhelming economic obstacles.

They will come, that is, a long as you bust your elbows marketing the event.

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“[Ann’s workshop was] one of the best professional development opportunities of my career.”
— Amy Burnett, communications officer, Conoco Phillips

Book Ann now and save

Lock in this year’s fees for next year’s programs

Because of increasing demand for my programs, I’ll be increasing the fees for my writing workshops on Jan. 2. Now, for a limited time, you can lock in 2009 fees for 2010 programs.

To get this year’s fees for next year’s programs, you must complete booking (that is, get a signed contract and deposit to me) by Dec. 31. To book a program, contact me directly.

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Just your type

19 top font combinations

The golden rule of font combinations, according to graphic designer Douglas Bonneville, is to combine a serif and a sans serif font to give “contrast” and not “concord.”

With that in mind, Bonneville suggests these 19 top font combinations:

  • Helvetica / Garamond
  • Caslon / Univers
  • Frutiger / Minion
  • Futura / Bodoni
  • Garamond / Futura
  • Gill Sans / Caslon
  • Minion / Gill Sans
  • Univers / Caslon
  • Bodoni / Futura
  • Myriad / Minion
  • Avenir / Warnock
  • Caslon / Franklin Gothic
  • FF Din / Baskerville
  • Trade Gothic / Clarendon
  • Baskerville / Univers
  • Akzidenz Grotesk / Garamond
  • Clarendon / Trade Gothic
  • Franklin Gothic / Baskerville
  • Warnock / Univers

Would one of these work for your communication?

Download a chart (PDF) showing the combos in action.

Want more info on how to communicate graphically?Everything Editors Need to Know About Design” shows how to create communications that are attractive and easy to read.

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Where in the world is Ann?

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:

  • Chicago: March 5
  • Cleveland: Nov. 30 – Dec. 3
  • New York: Dec. 11
  • San Diego: Nov. 8
  • San Francisco: June 18

Save even more: Ask about my communication association discounts and second-day fee reductions.

Contact me to discuss piggybacking.

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Ann’s touring schedule

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:

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.

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Let’s connect

Keep in touch via:

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Keep up with Ann’s calendar

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.

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What are we up to?

The folks at Wylie Communications have been enjoying:

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For more info …

… about my seminars, publication consulting or writing and editing services, please contact me or visit my website.

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Please share this issue …

… with two of your colleagues by directing them to our e-zine Web page. Better yet, invite them to subscribe to Wylie’s Writing Tips. They’ll thank you — and so will I!

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