Education Public Relation

Are You Smart Enough to Write for a Fifth-Grader?

By April 18, 2012October 15th, 2017No Comments

Try this sentence on for size:

“By far, this is the most angst-ridden decision we have made in my more than 25 years with Starbucks, but we realize that part of transforming a company is our ability to look forward, while pursuing innovation and reflecting, in many cases, with 20/20 hindsight, on the decisions that we made in the past, both good and bad.”

Starbucks paid somebody a handsome salary to write that, but could you tell what it meant after reading it once? Me neither.

As PR professionals, we convey meaning. We take complex ideas and distill them into something that makes sense for a general audience. We simplify stuff. But sometimes our writing reads like an encrypted wartime message, and our stilted approach is counterproductive.

Let’s explore literacy in the United States and how to write for readability.

Literacy in the United States

Put simply, you probably overestimate the literacy of Americans as a group. In 1993, only one of every five people (20 percent) could read at a high school level – a circumstance that has not improved in recent years. The National Adult Literacy Survey of 2003 deemed only 13 percent of Americans to be “proficient” readers.

Even the highly educated underachieve when it comes to reading. Why? People lose reading skills over time, and we often don’t want to read at our education level. Reading something written like a college thesis is hard work, and people naturally want information in the most succinct and easy-to-read style possible. Reading should be relaxing, not strenuous.

How to Improve Readability

Literacy varies by audience, and I’m not suggesting we “dumb down” our prose to give it more mass appeal. But there are a few simple techniques we can use to make our writing more accessible without compromising quality.

Shrink words.
Eliminating jargon and shortening words translates to better comprehension. Avoid using “laceration” when “cut” gets the point across just fine. Less than three syllables and an average of five-to-seven characters per word works best.

Shrink sentences.
Think more like Hemingway and less like Austen. Sentences with several clauses (like the Starbucks example) confuse readers. “Writing for Readability” expert Ann Wylie recommends aiming for sentences with no more than 15 words. That’s a challenge, but the sentence you’re reading right now contains 13 words. So it’s possible.

One way to shorten sentences is by replacing commas and semicolons with periods. Despite what my English teachers taught me, it’s acceptable to begin a sentence with a conjunction. But make sure it contains a noun and a verb.

Shrink paragraphs.
Seeing the theme? Paragraphs longer than three or four sentences reduce the readability of prose. Many readers have short attention spans. When explaining an idea that requires more than four sentences, break it into smaller chunks. It will be more understandable piece-by-piece anyway.

Or, as David Belasco put it, “If you can’t write your idea on the back of my calling card, you don’t have a clear idea.”

How Readable is Your Writing?

Here’s one free online tool that analyzes the reader-friendliness of your writing: www.storytoolz.com. Simply paste text in the box, and the tool generates a readability analysis based on several reading barometers.

Articles appearing in the Wall Street Journal and New York Times typically ring-in around ninth or 10th grade reading levels. Is your audience more literate than theirs?

In case you’re wondering, this post is written at an early high school reading level according to StoryToolz.

What is the most challenging aspect of making your writing more readable?