Choose Anglo-Saxon words, write to ‘you’ & more
More than 80 years of readability research demonstrate that short words are easiest to read and understand. In fact, word length is the No. 1 predictor of readability.
We spend a lot of time talking about the magic number of words for blog content and other messages. Should you write longer articles or short posts?
What’s the sweet spot for attention spans? 200 words? 500 words? 2,000 words? And what role do search engines and keyword research play in these decisions.
But the real question about the best word length for blog posts isn’t average word count. It’s the number of characters per word.
Whether you’re writing a longer post or other types of content, keep your word length to five characters or less. (I know you can do it, because The New York Times does it every day.
Here are five ways to keep your words short:
1. Find long words.
Use your word count tool to find the average length of your words in characters. If it’s more than five, you need to cut long words.
Then eyeball your copy and scan for long words. Any word of three syllables or more is a candidate for replacing.
2. Use a better thesaurus.
Substitute shorter words where you can. A thesaurus can help. But don’t use Microsoft Word’s, which seems capable only of identifying longer words as substitutes.
3. Write about people doing things.
Think of your sentences as stories with clearly identifiable characters acting concretely, suggests the Little Red Schoolhouse school of readability:
No: “Its failure could affect vehicle directional control, particularly during heavy brake application.”
Yes: “You won’t be able to steer when you put on the brakes.”
4. Make subjects characters.
Write about people doing things, not about things doing things, as in this example from the Little Red Schoolhouse school of readability:
No: “Our expectation was for a National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) ruling that management interference with the strike or harassment of picketing workers was not permitted.”
Yes: “We expected the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) to rule that management could not interfere with the strike or harass picketing workers.”
5. Turn actions into verbs.
Write in verbs, not nouns, suggests the Little Red Schoolhouse school of readability:
No: “Growth occurred in Pinocchio’s nose when lies were told by him to Geppetto.”
Yes: “Pinocchio’s nose grew longer when he lied to Geppetto.”
Corollary: Nix nominalizations, or words that turn verbs (like explain) into nouns (like explanation).
6. Write to ‘you.’
Look at how writing directly to the reader streamlines syllables and sentences in this passage from the SEC’s “Plain English Handbook” (PDF):
Before — 5.1 characters per word:
This Summary does not purport to be complete and is qualified in its entirety by the more detailed information contained in the Proxy Statement and the Appendices hereto, all of which should be carefully reviewed.
After — 4.6 characters per word:
Because this is a summary, it does not contain all the information that may be important to you. You should read the entire proxy statement and its appendices carefully before you decide how to vote.
7. Write as you speak.
I often say to participants in my workshops, “You would never, ever say this.” Your voice is a good filter for the words you use in your message.
“Good writing is good conversation, only more so.”
― Ernest Hemingway, American author and journalist famous for his economical, understated style
Say, “Hey! Did you hear?” Then read your message aloud. If it sounds as if your message logically follows those four one-syllable words, your message is crisp and conversational.
If it sounds like a neurological dissertation, make your words shorter and chattier.
8. Choose one-syllable words.
“Short words are best,” said Winston Churchill, “and old words when short are the best of all.”
Take a tip from Churchill — the only person I know of who slayed Nazis with words — and choose one-syllable words.
9. Choose Anglo-Saxon words.
English has two daddies: the Latin daddy, who spoke in long, abstract, fancy words about ideas, and the Anglo-Saxon daddy, who pointed at a rock and grunted, “ROCK!”
Choose from the Anglo-Saxon side of the family.
“After the Normans invaded England, Latin words became preferred by the country’s royalty, clergy and scholars. Latin words were, and still are, more formal and indirect than their dirt cheap Anglo-Saxon equivalents,” writes Bill Luening, senior editor, The Kansas City Star.
“Anglo-Saxon, the honest language of peasants, packs a wallop. In Anglo-Saxon, a man who drinks to excess is not bibulous but a drunk, a man who steals is not a perpetrator, but a thief, and a man who is follically-impaired is not glabrous, but bald. Direct language is powerful language.”
So make it a drunk, bald thief.
“Leave said alone,” writes Roy Peter Clark, vice president and senior scholar, The Poynter Institute. “Don’t be tempted by the muse of variation to permit characters to opine, elaborate, cajole, or chortle.”
11. Vary your word length.
“Experiment with melody, rhythm and cadence,” write Michelle Hiskey and Lyle Harris, journalists at the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.
Roy Peter Clark agrees. The senior scholar at the Poynter Institute writes:
“Prefer the simple to the technical; put shorter words and paragraphs at the points of greatest complexity. … [R]eaders will remember how the story sounded and resonated in their heads long after they’ve put [your copy] down.”
12. Pack long words with short words.
The problem with most long words isn’t the words themselves, it’s the fact that people who use long words tend to use a lot of them in a row. Break up those multisyllabic pileups with one- and two-syllable words.
13. Put long words in short sentences.
What’s the best word length for blog posts?
When writing articles, blog posts and other social media content, worry less about whether to write a long article or a short one. To increase social shares and other analytics, produce high-quality content — and keep words short.