“In an information-rich age, who will ensure that it is not only the rich who have information?”
— Keir Bloomer, president of the Association of Directors in Education

Can you read me now?

14% of U.S. adults have below-basic reading skills, says PIAAC 2013

Just 12% of Americans read well enough to review search results from a library website to identify a book suggesting that claims made both for and against generically modified foods are unreliable.

Read it and weep: 18% of Americans lack even basic reading skills.

Read it and weep 18% of Americans lack even basic reading skills.

Which means that if you write for these proficient readers, you’ll miss 88% of U.S. adults aged 16 to 65. Or so says the 2013 Program for the International Assessment of Adult Competencies (PIAAC).

About the study

PIAAC is a cyclical, large-scale study of adult literacy. It was developed and organized by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development.

The study looks at numeracy and problem solving in technology-rich environments, as well as literacy. The literacy study tested:

  • Vocabulary
  • Sentence comprehension
  • Basic passage comprehension

In the United States, the OECD conducted the study in 2011-12. The group tested a nationally representative sample of 5,000 adults between the ages of 16 and 65.

How low can you go?

The results? U.S. adults weighed in at an average literacy rate of 270 out of 500. That puts us at level 2, or below basic, literacy skills.

That means that, on average, we can look at a chart of generic drug use in 15 countries and count the number of countries in which the generic drug market accounts for 10% or more of drug sales. But we struggle to review an organization’s website with several links, including “contact us,” and identify which link will lead to the organization’s phone number.

That score also puts us at the bottom of the pack internationally.

U.S. literacy 2013

Just 12% of Americans 16 to 65 are proficient readers.

Literacy level/score

Percentage of U.S. adults 16+


Sample task

Below level 1 (Nonliterate)
4%Locate a single piece of information in familiar copy.Review a simple table identifying three candidates and the number of votes they received to identify which candidate earned the fewest votes.
Level 1
(Below basic)
14%Read relatively short digital, print or mixed copy to locate a single piece of information.Review two paragraphs and a chart of generic medicine usage in 15 countries to count the number of countries in which the generic drug market accounts for 10% or more of drug sales.
Level 2
34%Find information that may require low-level paraphrasing and drawing low-level inferences.Review a website with several links, including “contact us” and “FAQ” and identify the link leading to the organization’s phone number.
Level 3 (Intermediate)
36%Identify, interpret or evaluate one or more pieces of information that require inference.Click to the second page of search results from a library website to identify the author of a book called Ecomyth.
Level 4/5 (Proficient)
12%4: Perform multiple-step operations to integrate, interpret or synthesize information from complex texts, which may require complex inferences.5: Integrate information across multiple dense texts; construct syntheses, ideas or points of view; or evaluate evidence-based arguments.Review search results from a library website to identify a book suggesting that the claims made both for and against generically modified foods are unreliable.

Where we fit in worldwide

Our average literacy score of 270 gives the United States:

  • Lower overall literacy scores than the international average
  • A higher percentage of low performers than the international average
  • A larger literacy gap between lower and higher socio-economic groups than internationally

Worse: Our overall literacy score has taken a three-point dive since 1994.

The only good news in this bleak report: The oldest U.S. adults in the study outperformed the oldest adults internationally in literacy.

We’re No. 13!

(We should try harder)

Closed book The average literacy rate of U.S. adults is lower than the international rate.

Closed book The average literacy rate of U.S. adults is lower than the international rate.

What this means for communicators

How do you communicate in an environment where many people can barely read? Write for most people. Learn to increase readability.

And if you’re telling yourself that your audience can read at an 11th-grade level, well, then, you’re probably lying to the person you love most.

Bottom line: Are you smart enough to write for a fifth-grader?

Write for Readability workshop

More than 60 years of research shows that making your copy easier to read improves:

  • Readership: More people read the piece.
  • Perseverance: People read more of it.
  • Comprehension: They understand it better.
  • Speed: They read faster.
  • Retention: They remember it longer.

In this session, you will learn:

  • The top 2 ways to increase readability
  • 4 components of more readable messages
  • 7 steps for making your copy easier to read
  • 6 tips for increasing comprehension
  • 9 tools for measuring, managing and reporting reading ease
  • 3 bonus tips for boosting readability

Want to bring a Write for Readability workshop to your team? Contact Ann to schedule your program.

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“The oldest and best advice in the business is: The tougher it is to tell, the slower and simpler you tell it.”
— Bob Levey, Washington Post columnist

Measure and manage readability

Readers multiply reading ease

So your copy is too tough for even the most literate among us to read?

You can measure and manage readability by using readability indexes like the Flesch-Kincaid grade level. (I like to use StoryToolz readability statistics to calculate this.)

That’s what I asked you to do for our October writing contest: Find a hard-to-read passage, then rewrite it to measurably increase readability. Two of you took me up on the challenge.

Now it’s nearly twice as easy to read.

Kate Buback, team leader of Marketing Communications at Edward Jones, improved readability by nearly nine grade levels in this passage:


Flesch-Kincaid grade level


Reading level

Bonds of all maturities have historically exhibited lower volatility than, and low correlations with, equities, and in appropriate weights can serve as a balancing mechanism for investors seeking diversification in portfolios with equity exposure. However, keep in mind that fixed-income asset classes experience volatility as well and, as with any investment, you should understand the associated risks, including loss of principal.19.3Historically, bonds have experienced lower volatility, and their performance hasn’t been closely tied to the performance of stocks. In appropriate amounts, bonds can help balance portfolios that include stocks. However, it’s important to remember that bonds aren’t immune from volatility. As with any investment, you should understand all the risks, including the potential for loss of principal.10.4

Congratulations, Kate. Well done — and thanks for playing!

And the winner is …

Freelance writer Sue Horner started with a passage that rang in at minus 29.5 on the Flesch Reading Ease scale and 43.5 on the Flesch reading grade level.

“What can I say?” she writes. “It’s government.”

In rewrite, she brought the grade level down to 9.6, nearly a 34-grade improvement:


Flesch-Kincaid grade level


Reading level

From July 1, 2010, until June 30, 2018, with the introduction of the HST in Ontario and British Columbia, large businesses – generally those making taxable supplies worth more than $10 million annually, and certain specified financial institutions – will be required to repay or “recapture” the portion of any available input tax credits (ITCs) that is attributable to the provincial part of the HST that becomes payable, or is paid without having become payable, in respect of a specified property or service that is acquired, or brought into one of these provinces, by a large business for consumption or use by that business in those provinces.43.5Large businesses will see changes between July 1, 2010, and June 30, 2018, due to a new tax in Ontario and British Columbia. This affects certain banking institutions and businesses making taxable goods worth more than $10 million a year. These businesses must repay a portion of tax credits related to the provincial part of the HST owed on a specific property/service. This product /service is one brought into either province to be used or consumed by that business.9.6

Great job, Sue! Watch your mailbox for a little readability-related gift from me.

Improve your own copy’s readability.

How can you make your copy measurably easier to read, especially in light of heart-wrenching U.S. literacy rates?

  • List lists
  • Break up sentences
  • Make words shorter
  • Write directly to the reader in the second person
  • Cover people doing things instead of programs and procedures

Measure readability, then improve readability.

Cut Through the Clutter

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

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“Words are the hummingbirds of the imagination.”
— Elbert Hubbard, American writer, editor and printer

Nounify a name

‘That was so Bankheadian’

I was thrilled last month when one of my clients asked me to “Wylie-ize” part of her website. (Thank you, Libby Catalinich!)

That reminded me of this exchange between characters in Jeffrey Eugenides’ The Marriage Plot:

“My goal in life is to become an adjective,” Leonard said. “People would go around saying, ‘That was so Bankheadian.’ Or, ‘A little too Bankheadian for my taste.’” “Bankheadian has a ring,” Madeleine said. “It’s better than Bankheadesque.” “Or Bankheadish.” “Ish is terrible all around. There’s Joycean, Shakespearean, Faulknerian. But ish? Who is there who’s an ish?” “Thomas Mannish?” “Kafkaesque,” Leonard said. “Pynchonesque! See, Pynchon’s already an adjective. Gaddis. What would Gaddis be? Gaddisesque? Gaddisy?” “You can’t really do it with Gaddis,” Madeleine said.

“Bellovian,” Leonard said. “It’s extra nice when they change the spelling slightly. Nabokovian already has the v. So does Chekhovian. The Russians have it made. Tolstoyan! That guy was an adjective waiting to happen.” “Don’t forget Tolstoyanism,” Madeleine said. “My God!” Leonard said. “A noun! I’ve never even dreamed of being a noun.”

Now I feel a little sorry for Eugenides’ characters. They’re daydreaming about becoming adjectives and nouns. I’d much rather be a verb!

What names could you nounify to make your copy more creative?

December writing contest: Nounify a name, define it, use it in a sentence, and send it to me by Jan. 1. If yours is the best entry, I’ll send you my favorite wordplay-themed gift.

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“Today’s service will be using the hashtag ‘#Jerrysdead.’”
— Minister performing a funeral in a Cory Pandolph cartoon in The New Yorker

Do hashtags #help?

When it comes to retweeting, they do, says Dan Zarrella

“Using a hashtag does no harm in the same way wood paneling does no harm to your station wagon, or a misspelled tattoo does no harm to your bicep.”

— Daniel Victor, social media staff editor at The New York Times

Love them or hate them, hashtags may help you increase retweets.

Or so says Dan Zarrella, HubSpot’s viral marketing scientist. Zarrella analyzed his dataset of more than 1.2 million tweets to find out whether hashtags made these news items move further and faster.

The results? Tweets that contained one or more hashtags were 55% more likely to be retweeted than tweets that did not.

Hash it out Tweets containing hashtags are 55% more likely to be retweeted than tweets that do not.

Hash it out Tweets containing hashtags are 55% more likely to be retweeted than tweets that do not.

Still … don’t overuse hashtags. Need a hilarious reminder? Check out this Justin Timberlake and Jimmy Fallon video.

And keep in mind this quote, by The New York Times social media staff editor Victor: “The noble hashtag is cursed by a problem Yogi Berra could appreciate: Too many people use it, so no one goes there.”

Social Media Writing Boot Camp

Social media is more like a cocktail party than a press release. Write status updates that sound like they were produced by a corporation — or even a public relations pro — and you’ll soon find yourself socializing with the chips, not attracting new friends and followers.

In this workshop, you’ll discover how to make your blog postings, tweets and other status updates more relevant, valuable and interesting to your readers. In this session, 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 updates that draw followers and get clicks.
  • Make your posts personable. There’s a reason they call it “social” media.
  • Tweak your tweets. Get your message across in 140 characters or less. Plus, learn how to make 140 characters go further — and when you must come in under the character limit.

Want to bring a Social Media Writing Boot Camp session to your team? Contact Ann to schedule your program.

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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

Book Ann now and save

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

Thank you, Dear Clients, for making 2013 Wylie Communications’ best and busiest year yet. It’s been a blast to do so much interesting, creative work for so many interesting, creative people.

The bad news: Because of increasing demand for my time, I’ll be increasing my fees for writing workshops on Jan. 2.

The good news: Now, for a limited time, you can lock in 2013 fees for 2014 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.

Need to unload those pesky 2013 dollars?

Do you have a little budget dust that you need to clear away before year’s end? Then here’s more good news: You can save 5 percent when you prepay my speaking fee. But only until Dec. 31.

Want more details? Contact me directly.

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“It helped clear away the corporate clutter often clogging up the creative process.”
— Jackie Barron, Community Relations manager, The Mosaic Company

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.

COME ALONG FOR THE RIDE Catch Ann at one of her upcoming workshops.

But everyone’s invited to these upcoming public seminars in:

  • New York City on Dec. 2. Catch Your Readers, a full-day workshop for PRSA
  • Salt Lake City on May 15: Think Like a Reader, a 90-minute preconference session, and Cut Through the Clutter, a 90-minute keynote, for the Salt Lake City PRSA chapter’s Spring Conference.
  • Your own home or office on Jan. 30: Write for Readability, a one-hour webinar for PRSA

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:

  • Chicago: Dec. 10-11
  • New York City: Dec. 2
  • Salt Lake City: May 15

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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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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For more info …

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

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