August 17, 2017

Benchmark readability against the BBC

How does your clarity stack up?

The BBC covers the most serious news known to man — West Bank stabbings, friendly fire air strikes, Justin Bieber’s bad behavior — and does so in an average of 4.7-character words.

Benchmark your readability

News for you The BBC makes the most serious news easy to understand with highly readable copy. Does your organization do the same? Image by Poster Boy

How does your copy’s readability compare to that of the world’s largest broadcast organization?… Read the full article

Stop We-We-ing on the reader

Talking about ourselves — better than sex?

It feels so good to talk about ourselves.

Stop We-We-ing on the reader

You above all Write to and about your readers, not about you and your stuff. Image by Jakob Owens

Talking about yourself activates the same pleasure centers in the brain as food, money or sex, according to Harvard neuroscientist Diana Tamir and her colleague Jason Mitchell, whose research on the topic was published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.… Read the full article

Diagnose We-We Syndrome

You’re so vain, you probably think this proposal is about you

Diagnose We-We Syndrome

Avoid institutional narcissism Don’t go We, we, we all the way home — without the contract. Image by elycefeliz

Richard Roll, an economics professor at the University of California, Los Angeles, studies narcissism in CEOs. Turns out the more narcissistic executives are, the more likely they are to overrate their skills and make bad business moves.

In one study, Roll used a simple technique that’s been validated by psychologists to gauge executive narcissism (PDF): He counted the number of “I’s” they used in their communications.… Read the full article

Readability helps everyone

You’re not dumbing it down; you’re lifting it up

It never fails.

When I talk in my writing workshops about the importance of making copy easy to read and understand, there’s always one communicator who can’t believe the advice applies to her.

Readability helps everyone

Reading ease Even highly literate audiences benefit from easier-to-read copy. And what’s dumb about that? Image by Gaelle Marcel

“Are you kidding?” she gasps. “I’m writing to surgeons / executives / pharmacists /school district superintendents/engineers/financial planners/horse breeders.… Read the full article

Avoid alphabet soup

7 ways to get the acronyms and abbreviations out

Seattle investigator J.P. Beaumont, a character in J.A. Jance’s Partner in Crime, tells this story:

How to handle acronyms

Use these carefully Acronyms and abbreviations may save a few words, but they also frustrate readers, who must take more time and effort to understand the message. Image by

“The world we live in is made up of shortcuts and acronyms — the Seattle PD, the U.S.

Read the full article

6 tips for writing lists

People look at 70% of lists they encounter online

Think of your bulleted lists as the celebrities of your blog posts, webpages and other pieces.

6 tips for writing lists

Short list Lists draw readers, increase understanding and get shared — but only if you present them well. Image by Hope House Press

Lists “are to the web reader’s eye what Brad Pitt is to the paparazzi,” say Kara Pernice, Kathryn Whitenton and Jakob Nielsen, the authors of How People Read on the Web.… Read the full article

Turn numbers into things

When writing with statistics, ask ‘What’s it like?’

When the late, great Kansas City Star columnist C.W. Gusewelle wanted to help readers understand the fragility of monarch butterflies as they migrate south for the winter, he wrote:

Turn numbers into things

But what does it mean? Add context to make numbers meaningful. Image by Maite Tiscar

Consulting the literature, I find that the average weight of an adult monarch may be expressed as 0.0176 of an ounce, about the same as a good-sized snowflake.

Read the full article

Out of sight, out of mind

Keep paragraphs even shorter for mobile screens

A paragraph that takes up four lines on a 30-inch monitor might well take eight lines — even more — on a mobile screen.

Paragraph length for mobile

Can you see me now? Readers struggle to read paragraphs on mobile devices when they can’t see the whole thing. Image by Cristina Gottardi

That causes a couple of problems:

1. It’s hard to read what you can’t see.

Part of your paragraph might not be visible on your reader’s 2-by-4-inch screen.… Read the full article

The cost of bad writing

It’s a $37 million-a-year problem at one organization

Bad writing causes 40% of the cost of managing business transactions, writes William H. DuBay, a readability expert at Impact Information, in Working with Plain Language (PDF).

Cost of bad writing

Eye on the bottom line How much does bad writing cost your organization? Image by frankieleon

He cites:

  • Newsletters that reach only a fraction of the targeted audience
  • Press releases that never make the news
  • Websites that fail to inform and motivate readers to act
  • Forms and applications that are badly filled in or left incomplete
  • Memos and business letters that require endless clarification
  • Legal notices and procedures that no one can read

How much is bad writing costing your organization?… Read the full article

The long and the short of it

Build drama, create rhythm by varying sentence length

Short sentences are best.

But make every sentence simple and short, and your copy will read like “See Dick run” primers. So vary the length of your sentences — for interest, for drama, for rhythm. Fluctuating sentence lengths can help you:

The long and the short of sentence length image

Sometimes bigger is better Most sentences should be short. But the occasional longer sentence can help you add rhythm and grace to your message.

Read the full article

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