The newspaper of record covers rocket science & brain surgery in simple terms
When I recommend to my clients that they limit their word length to 5 characters per word, they roll their eyes and chortle.
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. (The Wall Street Journal also accomplishes this feat, day after day, rarely rubbing its head against the 5-character ceiling.)
And that’s important. Because every syllable you include adds a fraction of a second of processing time. Those fractions of seconds add up to more effort for the reader — a primary cause of lost readership.
Just ask the folks at the Times.
Benchmark your writing against the Times.
We analyzed all stories in one edition of The New York Times. (We skipped the sports pages, thinking they would skew our results.) On that day, Times words:
Drop avoid long words subhead and everything after it.
Keep but make normal type: What’s your average word length? Could you make big stories more accessible to more people if it were shorter?
- 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.
Target 5-character words.
The Times makes big, complex stories accessible to millions of people through words that average 5 characters or less, like these:
Jack Phillips is a baker whose evangelical Protestant faith informs his business. There are no Halloween treats in his bakery — he does not see devils and witches as a laughing matter. He will not make erotic-themed pastries — they offend his sense of morality.
The company, which spun off its previous mobile carrier unit in 2001, said on Monday that it had entered into exclusive talks to acquire EE, the British mobile phone business of Orange of France and Deutsche Telekom of Germany, for about 12.5 billion pounds, or about $19.6 billion.
Since she stepped down as secretary of state in 2013, Mrs. Clinton has worked with her daughter, Chelsea, who also attended the event, on a separate partnership between the Bill, Hillary & Chelsea Clinton Foundation and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation that seeks to collect data on the progress women and girls have made globally.
How low can you go?
While aiming for an average of 5 characters, don’t be afraid of super-short words. These, from the Times, weigh in at:
… 4.2-character words
It was only this year when he turned himself in that the Army and his family learned what had happened.
… 4.1-character words
In recent weeks he has also moved ahead again among the 25-54 group.
… 4.0-character words
By the time his $10-an-hour playtime was up, Mr. Metairie had made plans to take the cat home and rename her Amélie.
… 3.8-character words
There is no limit in the number of times an act can be nominated, so perhaps the fight can start all over again next year.
… 3.7-character words
He kept his belongings stored in his car, and many nights, he said, he did not sleep at all.
… 3.5-character words
I would have thought you were crazy.
Avoid long words.
Of course, even the Times occasionally gets it wrong. Avoid writing long words like these, which weigh in at …
… 6.1 characters
Nonetheless, he proposed using federal Medicaid funds available under the law to cover some 200,000 low-income residents through their employer’s health insurance plan or the state’s Medicaid program.
… 7.0 characters
The new, independent school organization would take ultimate fiduciary responsibility for itself.
… 8.1 characters
Artificial intelligence describes computer systems that perform tasks traditionally requiring human intelligence and perception.
What’s your average word length? Could you make big stories more accessible to more people if it were shorter?