The New York Times averages 4.9 characters
An editor once counseled me to change all the instances of employment in an article to jobs.
Great advice. More than 80 years of readability research demonstrate that short, simple, familiar words are easiest to read and understand.
So if short words are better, how long should your words be?
If you’re writing in English, keep them to five characters on average.
This is important. Because short words are the No. 1 predictor of readability.
Write like the Times.
When I recommend to my clients that they limit their word length to five characters per word, they roll their eyes.
But when I tell them I know they can do it, because The New York Times does it every day, they sit up and take note.
We analyzed all stories in one edition of The New York Times. (We skipped the sports pages, thinking they might skew our results.) On that day, Times words:
- Ranged from an average of 4 characters per word (“Seeing the World Through Its Barbecue Joints“) to an average of 5.6 characters (“Wright Architecture School Sets Fund-raising Goal for Independence”).
- Averaged 4.9 characters per word.
- Weighed in at a median of 4.9 characters per word.
And, remember, the Times is covering topics ranging from rocket science to brain surgery.
What’s your average word length? Could you make big stories more accessible to more people if it were shorter?