Snip your sentences | January 2010

“(Martin) Amis has loosened his belt, and his slangy, scattershot prose veers toward self-parody. Sentences are either impossibly short or impossibly long. Commas, colons, parentheses and dashes crawl all over the page like flesh-eating microbes.”
— Jeff Giles,
senior editor of Newsweek’s Arts & Entertainment section

Snip your sentences

How long is too long?

What’s the average length of a sentence that readers can easily read and understand?

Joseph M. Williams, the author of Style: Toward Clarity and Grace, wrote:

“The ability to write clear, crisp sentences that never go beyond twenty words is a considerable achievement.”

Jack Hart, editor at large of The Oregonian and author of A Writer’s Coach, counsels:

“Writers who demand attention seldom average more than 17 words a sentence.”

Jack Cappon, longtime Associated Press editor and writing ace, said:

“There are no absolute rules of good writing — generalizations are instantly riddled with exceptions — but the principle of the 16-word average sentence comes closest. No other single step you can take will show such quick results in clarity and vigor.”

Tom Silvestri, president of Media General Community Newspapers, suggests:

Imagine a clock that starts ticking after the 10th word. With each additional word, the ticking gets louder. After the 20th word, the ticking is VERY loud. After the 40th, it’s stadium-crowd loud. After 45, deafening.”

When does your sentence-length alarm go off? If you want to write copy that readers find easy to read and understand, keep sentences short.

Cut Through the Clutter

Is your copy easy to read and understand? That’s one of the two key questions people ask to determine whether to read a piece — or toss it. If you’d like more techniques for making your copy clearer and more concise, please join me at PRSA’s Jan. 21 teleseminar, “Cut Through the Clutter.”

You’ll learn:

  • How to edit by the numbers: How long should your paragraphs be? Your sentences? Your words?
  • Three effective ways to shorten your copy
  • A “funnel system” you can use to make the editing process more efficient and effective
  • How to avoid a reader backlash that could be causing people to toss your copy without reading it
  • Techniques for solving the “visual duration-sensing apparatus” problem
  • An easy approach for making your copy more conversational
  • How to use the “word count” function to make your copy easier to read

Learn about my other upcoming teleseminars.


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

“I like to use as few commas as possible so that sentences will go down in one swallow without touching the sides.”
— Florence King,
author of Reflections in a Jaundiced Eye

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Time it right

When will you get the most action on Twitter?

Timing is important, says Jakob Nielsen, “the king of usability.”

Nielsen’s preferred tweeting time is 9:01 a.m. Pacific, because that encompasses working hours from California to the United Kingdom, where most of his audience members live.

He posts a minute after the hour so his tweet will show up above those of people who set their software to post at the top of the hour.

“One of the big downsides of stream-based communication compared to email newsletters is the highly ephemeral nature of the postings,” Nielsen says. “Once they scroll off the first screen, they’re essentially 6 feet under.”

Tweet on Tuesdays.

Tuesday is by far the most popular day for Twitter activity, accounting for 15.7 percent of all tweets, according to a report on Twitter usage by social media analytics provider Sysomos.

Next most popular: Wednesday (15.6 percent) and Friday (14.5 percent).

Make that Fridays.

People tweet most often on Tuesdays. But they retweet more often on Friday — and at 4 p.m. — than at any other day or time, according to viral marketing scientist Dan Zarrella.

Looking to get retweets? Friday afternoon may be the best time to tweet, Zarrella says.

Make that weekends and afternoons.

Thursday and Sunday, followed by Saturday, are the best days for getting click-throughs on your tweets, according to new research by Zarrella. He attributes this to “link fatigue” during the week, when more links are posted.

And 2 p.m. is the best time for click-through rates, according Zarrella’s research.

So when should you tweet?

Depends on what you want to accomplish.

Get the word out on the Web

Want to master the art of reaching readers online?

“One of the big downsides of stream-based communication compared to email newsletters is the highly ephemeral nature of the postings. Once they scroll off the first screen, they’re essentially 6 feet under.”
— Jakob Nielsen, “the king of usability”

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Perfect pitch

Answer these four questions

The most effective pitches are short — maybe 100 to 150 words. To keep your pitch fast and efficient, answer these four questions:

  • Why you? Target the journalists and bloggers you pitch. Start with a personal greeting and slant your story to their media outlet, column or segment.
  • Why this? Give just enough detail to demonstrate that this story is different and worth covering.
  • Why now? Create a sense of urgency. Show that this isn’t a generic, evergreen story but a timely piece that should be covered right now. Make your lead timely or link it to a hot topic.
  • Why us? Give an indication of authority and credibility. Without blah-blahing your spokesperson’s whole bio, show that she’s a credible — maybe even controversial — figure.

Then share all of your contact information, including your phone numbers. (After all, how timely could this story be if you’re willing to let the journalist try to track you down via email?)

Repeat your email address in case your message gets forwarded.

Then “Best,” your name, and out.

Reach bloggers and journalists

Want to master the art of writing successful media relations materials?

“The concept of ‘right now’ and ‘affecting all of us’ is massive. You can turn a lot heads and build a lot of story if you tie it into time and effect.”
— Peter Shankman, author of Can We Do That?!

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Northern Exposure

How to produce a chapter workshop that sells out and earns a profit

It’s the good kind of problem to have: PRSA Alaska and the Architecture/Engineering Marketing Association of Alaska both had a little extra money in the bank. Which made chapter leaders ask …

“We’re saving our money … for what?” says AEMAA program director and president-elect Leah Boltz. “We wanted to take our money and really provide a benefit for our members.”

That’s when Boltz had the brilliant idea of bringing me in for a chapter writing workshop in Anchorage. (Little did she know her chapter would wind up with even more money in the bank!)

The secret? A comprehensive PR and marketing plan, as you might expect from these two groups. Among the elements of the plan:

  • Offer popular topics. “Our members were interested in writing tips, and their bosses seemed interested in paying for it,” says Mary Deming Barber, APR, Fellow PRSA, and Boltz’s partner on this project. “We positioned the event as one that appealed to anyone who writes for a living, not just public relations professionals. This meant we could reach out to people beyond our own membership and was likely a key to success.”
  • Promote aggressively. The publicity team created an extensive plan, targeting people who weren’t members of PRSA or AEMAA and involving individual outreach.
  • Reach out. Publicity team members asked each board member to send the invitation to at least 10 people who were not members.
  • Make it personal. Fundraisers contacted fundraisers; journalists contacted journalists.
  • Tap other markets. Event planners distributed fliers at chapter meetings of other groups, like associations of press women and marketers.
  • Go social. Leaders also published the event on the chapters’ Facebook pages and in a series of tweets.
  • Get a sponsor. The chapters secured two corporate sponsors who contributed $1,000 in exchange for logo usage and one free seat at the event. Sponsors also provided graphics for the publicity and made workbook copies.

Two weeks before the workshop, the event had sold out. Even after asking the hotel to reconfigure the room to accommodate more seats, chapter leaders had to start turning people away.

Attendance: More than 100 people — some who flew in from Fairbanks — attended the program. Still, chapter leaders had a substantial waiting list.

“If you consider our chapter has 130 members, and we had 110 at the luncheon, that’s a fairly good ratio,” Barber says. “Attendance at our monthly lunches has been between 30 and 40, down from previous years.”

Between 25 and 35 people usually attend the meetings of AEMAA, which has 50 member firms.

Member service: In a follow-up survey, 100 percent of attendees said they wanted PRSA and AEMAA to bring me back for another workshop.

“I have never, or maybe rarely, had members send emails following a session expressing how much they enjoyed a session,” Barber says. “I believe I received at least five following this session. There were also tweets and other discussion about how much individuals learned and requests to be part of future programs.”

Revenue: The event brought in $17,120. After expenses, the chapters split more than $7,500 in profit. Which means they now have even more money in the bank.

What will they do with the extra cash?

“Reinvest it in educational programs and more member benefits,” Boltz says. “Save it for Ann Wylie next year!”

Learn more about my chapter programs and discounts.

“[Ann’s workshop] was excellent. It helped me to rethink structure and provide solutions around our issues with heavy content and Web writing.”
— Ann Vickers, director of Marketing Communications, Medical Mutual

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Alphabet scoop

How to create acronyms that help readers retain information

I know: Acronyms can make your copy harder to read. After all, it’s hard for readers to follow your train of thought when they’re drowning in alphabet soup.

But acronyms can also make your copy easier to read and remember, writes Jack Napoli, if you use them to group your key ideas “into nuggets of distinction.”

MARC, for instance, is easier to remember than Mid-America Regional Council. It’s also easier to remember than an acronym that doesn’t spell out a pronounceable word — Midwestern Regional Council, or MRC, for instance.

“Can the audience recall your message 2 minutes, 2 hours, 2 days, 2 weeks or 2 martinis later?” Napoli asks. To help your audience members, he suggests keeping your acronyms:

  • Short: three to six characters long
  • Meaningful: Make sure the acronym compliments the subject matter.
  • Repeatable: easy to say and remember

Napoli sells the idea of using acronyms to create sticky messages in his excellent post, but he doesn’t offer any how-to’s. Here’s one approach for turning a list into a mnemonic device to help readers remember your key points:

  • List the words you want to include. You might need to find potential substitutes.
  • Type the first letter of each word into the online anagram server box.
  • Click “get anagrams.”

The result: a meaningful acronym that helps readers codify and remember your big ideas.

Play with your words

Want to master the art of making your copy more creative and engaging through wordplay?

“You can taste a word.”
— Pearl Bailey, American popular singer

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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, 10
  • Detroit: May 6-7
  • Fresno, Calif.: June 21
  • New York: March 19
  • Portland, Ore.: Aug. 12
  • San Francisco: June 18
  • Santa Fe, N.M.: Feb. 4-8
  • Tacoma, Wash.: Aug. 11
  • Toronto: June 9
  • Washington, D.C.: Feb. 24

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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