“A sentence, Matthew’s teacher back in Virginia had tried to drum into his thick Kinsey head, could live without a subject, but it could not live without a verb.”
— Edward P. Jones, author, in The Known World

Don’t commit verbicide

Streamline syllables with action words

This just in, writes one of my favorite correspondents, sharing a sentence his subject matter expert has written:

“ABC employees have problem solved their way to an XYZ Company Continuous Improvement success by purchasing a specifically designed storage cabinet to protect the life ring at the neutralization discharge pond.”

AND ... ACTION! Has your copy been through the de-verb-o-rizer a few times? Turn nouns into verbs and watch your copy get more readable.

Somebody just kill me now, my friend writes.

Or, as his subject matter expert might put it, “Somebody just problem solve his way to a homicide success immediately.”

What’s wrong with this sentence? It:

Worse, it’s been through the de-verb-o-rizer a few times. That’s a problem, because verbs make copy easier to read.

Verbs boost reading ease.

In 1928, Mabel Vogel and Carleton Washburne became the first researchers to statistically correlate writing traits with readability. They found that the more verbs in a writing sample, the easier the sample was to read. In fact, the number of verbs in a 1,000-word sample ranked No. 6 among 19 key elements that contributed to readability.

Why? Because verbs:

  • Make words shorter and more recognizable. Short, familiar words rank among the top two predictors of readability, according to 70 years of research.
  • Simplify sentences. Subject-verb-object is the easiest sentence structure to read and understand. And sentence length and structure is the other element most likely to predict readability.
  • Reveal action. Action is easier for readers to process than things, so verbs are easier to process than nouns.

How can you mind your verbs to boost reading ease?

Reverbify nouns.

Call it verbicide: “Nominalizations” are verbs that writers have turned into nouns — “problem solved,” for instance, instead of “solved the problem.”

In 1979, attorney Robert Charrow and linguist Veda Charrow ran a test to see whether nominalizations and other “linguistic constructions” affected comprehension. They asked 35 people called for jury duty in Maryland to listen to a series of standard jury instructions, then tested participants’ understanding of what they’d heard. Then the researchers reverbified the nouns and otherwise simplified the copy and tested the instructions on a different group.

The reverbified copy was 14 percentage points easier to understand.

At least three other studies have also linked verbicide with reduced comprehension:

  • E.B. Coleman and P.J. Blumenfield (1963)
  • G.R. Klare (1976)
  • D.B. Felkner et al (1981)

No doubt about it: When you write in verbs, you make words shorter, sentences simpler and copy brisker. This sentence, for instance, weighs in at an average of 7.0 characters per word:

“This report explains our investment growth stimulation projects.”

But reverbify some of those nouns, and you can bring that average down to 5.9 characters per word:

“This report explains our projects to stimulate growth in investments.”

Notice how many verbs suffocate in the nouns of my friend’s passage:

“ABC employees have problem solved their way to an XYZ Company Continuous Improvement success by purchasing a specifically designed storage cabinet to protect the life ring at the neutralization discharge pond.”

Those dying verbs make the passage thick, stuffy and hard to understand.

Zoom, zoom

Once you’ve reverbified your copy, push your verbs. Make them as strong and specific as possible.

“A story is a verb, not a noun,” wrote one of the former editors of The New York Times.That means the verb is the story. The stronger the verb, the stronger the story.

How well do your verbs tell your story?


Sources: William H. DuBay, “Smart Language,” Impact Information, 2007

Roy Peter Clark, “Thirty Tools for Writers,” The Poynter Institute, June 19, 2002

David Bowman, owner and chief editor of Precise Edit, “Keep Verbs as Verbs,” 300 Days of Better Writing, Sept. 24, 2010

“Break up complex sentences to help readers,” The Manager’s Intelligence Report

A Plain English Handbook (PDF), U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission, 1998

Cut Through the Clutter

Want to make every piece you write easier to read and understand?

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“If you really want to shake people out of their reverie and motivate them to sit up and take notice, say those two simple words, for example.”
— Sam Horn, author of POP! Stand Out In Any Crowd

Examples prove the rule

A pint of ‘for instance’ is worth a gallon of abstraction

You could just say that in Cleopatra’s time, women had few legal rights. Or you could illustrate that point with an example, as Stacy Schiff does in Cleopatra: A Life:

“[I]n a city where women enjoyed the same legal rights as infants or chickens, the posting called upon a whole new set of skills.”

SHOW ME Illustrate your point with an example, story, analogy or other concrete detail

They may be the two most beautiful words in the English language: for example. Concrete examples like Darth Vader toothbrushes and Pepto-Bismol-slathered schnauzers change the pictures in people’s heads and move readers to act.

One way to write concretely is to lead by example. Present an illustration — a “for instance” — to prove your point.

Play it SAFE.

Examples are just one kind of concrete material you can use to prove your assertions. Diane West and Jennifer Dreyer of Tamayo Consulting offer the mnemonic SAFEST as a way to remember to add other concrete elements to your copy:

  • Statistics
  • Analogies
  • Facts
  • Examples
  • Stories
  • Testimonials

How can you add examples, statistics, analogies and other concrete details to make your message more vivid?

Make Your Copy More Creative

Want to communicate better with creative copy?

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“DYK? The human brain judges attraction in one-fifth of a second.”
— @AnswersDotCom

Pass the 10-second test

The longer Web visitors stay, the longer they’ll stay

Should I stay or should I go?

HOW LONG IS TOO LONG? Web visitors decide whether to stay or go in 10 seconds or less.

That’s a question your Web visitors ask themselves every second they spend on your page.

Now new research shows that if you can get your visitors to spend 10 seconds on your Web page, they’ll likely stay longer. And the longer they stay, writes usability expert Jakob Nielsen, the longer they’ll stay.

Web pages age ‘negatively.’

For the research, Chao Liu and colleagues from Microsoft Research crunched the numbers on page visit durations for more than 200,000 Web pages over nearly 10,000 visitsThey learned that the amount of time users spend on a Web page follows a “Weibull distribution.”

Easy for them to say.

Weibull is a reliability-engineering model that’s used to analyze the time it takes components to fail. Given that it’s worked fine until now, the model says, it will likely fail at X time.

Most Web pages age “negatively.” That is, the longer visitors stay, the longer they’re likely to stay.

The 10-second test

Visitors decide whether they’re on the right Web page fast:

  • In the first 10 seconds, they make a critical stay-or-go decision. They’re most likely to leave during that first, fast glance at the page.
  • But if they do stay, visitors look around a bit more. In the next 20 seconds — their first 30 seconds total on the page — they’re still quite likely to leave.
  • After 30 seconds, though, the curve becomes fairly flat. Visitors continue to leave a page, but much more slowly than they did during the first 30 seconds.

If you can get people to stay for 30 seconds, there’s a good chance that they’ll stay longer — “often 2 minutes or more, which is an eternity on the Web,” Nielsen writes.

“How long will users stay on a Web page before leaving? It’s a perennial question, yet the answer has always been the same: Not very long,” Nielsen writes. “To gain several minutes of user attention, you must clearly communicate your value proposition within 10 seconds.”

Reach readers online

Want to master the art of writing for the Web?

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“You may have tweeted your condolences, but you still have to send flowers.”
Esquire’s “New Rules for Men”

A little to the left

Location, location, location matters on Twitter

Turns out there’s a place for everything on Twitter, too.

HANG A LEFT Want to get more click-throughs? Nudge your link a little to the left — about 25% of the way through your tweet.

Followers are more likely to click on links placed one-quarter of the way into your tweet than at the beginning or end, according to new research by Dan Zarrella.

For his study, he used bit.ly API  to analyze 200,000 random Tweets containing bit.ly links. Then he correlated the relationship of the link’s position in the tweet with its click-through rate.

Those located 25 percent of the way in got the most click-throughs.

Want to increase click-throughs? It may be a matter of nudging your link a little to the left.

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“Awesome — every employee should be mandated to take [Ann’s writing workshop].”
— Linda R. Parker, director, Administration Communications, FedEx

Voice lessons

How to write in the brand voice

Do your brand voice guidelines tell people what to write, but not how?

Let me turn your voice guidelines into a series of writing techniques. I’ve helped Progressive Insurance, The Principal and other organizations realize their brand guidelines by transforming their “what-to’s” into “how-to’s.”

How may I help you?

Let’s talk!

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“Excellent. I will use what I learned [in Ann’s workshop] to make a better product. There was no fluff. It was a full day of concrete ways to hook and keep the reader.”
— Margie Paxton, Senior Communications Specialist, KCPL

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:

  • Atlanta: Dec. 19
  • Bismark, N.D.: April 27
  • Boston: June 22
  • Chicago: March 23
  • Columbia, Md.: Nov. 16
  • Danville, Penn.: Dec. 14
  • Houston: Dec. 7-8, March 8
  • Nashville, Tenn.: May 3
  • New York City: Nov. 4-9
  • Sacramento, Calif.: Dec. 1
  • St. Louis, Mo.: Jan. 25

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, website, brochure and newsletter copy for Saint Luke’s Health System, Mediware and Cassidian
  • Presenting writing workshops for FedEx, T. Rowe Price, Cincinnati Children’s Hospital, the PRSA International Conference, Ragan’s Corporate Writers and Editors Conference and PRSA Nashville
  • Conducting webinars for the Public Relations Society of America

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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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