August 19, 2017

“Johnny can’t read.”
— Rudolf Flesch, creator of the Flesch Reading Ease test

Can you read me now?

21% of U.S. adults have trouble using a street map

What reading grade level should you hit on the Flesch-KincaidGunning Fog or other readability indexes?

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.

Light reading

Percentage of U.S. adults who can read at different estimated grade levels,
according to the 1993 National Adult Literacy Survey (NALS)

READ IT AND WEEP Write at the 11th grade level, and 97% of U.S. adults won't be able to understand your copy.

Calculate readability

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.

Improve readability

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?

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“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

Can Web heads be witty and wise?

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.

TAG IT AND BAG IT Put your search terms in the page title and URL and use a feature head on the Web page. If it's good enough for The New York Times …

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:

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?

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“The question is not what you look at, but what you see.”
— Henry David Thoreau, American author and philosopher

Take me there

Observational stories put readers in the scene

BEING THERE Go to the scene and observe, then recreate that experience for your reader through description.

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.

Road trip

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?

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“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.

‘Solution’ strikes again

‘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.

IF YOU'RE NOT PART OF THE SOLUTION … Let's stop overusing this buzzword and say what we really mean.

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?

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“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

Make the grade

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.

STRAIGHT A's. Get a report card covering more than two dozen metrics on your writing. Learn techniques you can apply today to improve your grade: Bit.ly/WritingReportCard

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Ann’s workshop was “a light-bulb moment.”
— Amanda Lenar, public relations account supervisor, Erwin-Penland

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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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:

  • 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.

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What are we up to?

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

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Keep up with my 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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Let’s connect

Keep in touch via:

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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 current issue. Better yet, invite them to subscribe to Wylie’s Writing Tips. They’ll thank you — and so will I!

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