“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

Pleading for shorter sentences

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.

ACID RAIN Don't drown your readers in a shower of words. Short sentences are among the top two ways to improve understanding and readability.

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:

  • Short
  • Simple
  • Active
  • Positive

And reduce the number of:

  • Prepositions
  • Dependent, embedded and other clauses
  • Phrases per sentence
  • Conjunctions
  • Words before the verb

How do you keep your sentences short and easy to understand?

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

Use more periods

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:

  • And
  • Or
  • Also
  • But
  • So
  • Then
  • Plus

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?

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“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

Writing ROI

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.
How can you measure and report the cost of bad writing at your organization? How can you sell the benefits of readable copy?

Move your audience to act

Want to deliver copy that gets read, understood and acted upon?

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“Email may well be your most productive marketing tool.”
— Dan Zarrella, viral marketing scientist, HubSpot

Addicted to email

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?

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“Budget dust: Year-end money that must be spent before it is swept away by the cold winds of a new fiscal year.”
— BuzzWhack.com

Eat your budget dust

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:

Want more details? Contact me directly. 

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“What an incredibly valuable session. I plan to head home and think and write in a new way.”
— Leslie Raynes, PR director, AKC Marketing

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
  • 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.

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What are we up to?

The folks at Wylie Communications have been enjoying:

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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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