Thursday, January 15, 2015

How to make your writing more readable (1)

Rudolf Flesch
Many people have asked me how they can make their writing more readable; more like conversation; easier to follow. A good question and a good goal.

I’ll cover the most important tips in a moment. But first, read this extremely readable sample:

“Yes. Many of us are angry. Not all the time, not so we can’t manage daily life, not to the extent that we cannot love, not so much that we are on the verge of psychotic actions. But yes, there is cause for anger among today’s men.
“We are angry that our children are so easily taken from us, and so easily trained to believe that we abandoned them. We are angry that our sexuality and our anatomy are the butt of constant abusive jokes. We are angry that so few women take us seriously, because, well, they know they don’t have to. We are angry over being blamed for all the evil in the world, evil that harms us as much as anyone else. We are angry at being told for a lifetime that it is our fault that women cannot have everything they demand, and angry that it is never noticed how hard we try to help them with that.”

Those are the first 165 words of a 794-word essay. The rest of it is here.

On the Flesch Reading Ease (FRE) scale, the sample scores a towering 75.2, which is easier to read than Reader’s Digest, which is specifically edited for readability. In short, writing aimed at grown-ups doesn’t get any more readable than this sample.

OK. How did the author achieve it?

Short words, on average: Flesch says the average word length in the sample is 3.9 characters. That’s very short.

A good mix of long and short words: There are lots of one- and two-syllable words, a few three-syllable  words (e.g., “psychotic”), a couple of four-syllable words (e.g., “anatomy”), and one five-syllable word (“sexuality”). Note that the four- and five-syllable words are familiar words.

Short sentences, on average: Flesch say the average sentence length in the sample is 18.0 words. That’s short to medium for English.

Good composition: In the third sentence, the author makes good use of the rhetorical device anaphora, using the word not four times. This device makes the longish (31-word) sentence easy to follow. He uses anaphora again in the second paragraph to guide the reader through:  “We are angry… We are angry… We are angry… We are angry… We are angry… ”

Good tone: The opening is stark, almost belligerent: “Yes. Many of us are angry.” That certainly gets the reader’s attention, but it may make him fear the author will go into a rage. So the author wisely softens the tone immediately with the four not’s and with the circumlocution “But yes, there is cause for anger among today’s men,” which (probably intentionally) does not have man or men as the subject of a verb. This deft early maneuvering assures the reader that the author is going to speak steadily and control himself.

And he does. Read the rest of the essay.

There is more to say about this little masterpiece, but I have covered the key points and I’m running long here.

The Takeaway: It is possible to make your writing more readable. Much more. If you keep reading good writers and keep Flesch-testing the readability of your own writing, you will steadily improve. You will probably surprise yourself at how far you go. If you are serious about readability, I suggest you start your course of improvement by reading all my posts about readability (scroll down to the LABELS and click on “READABILITY”). Then start getting into the habit of using Flesch every day. You can do it!

See disclaimer.

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