Write to be Read
Simple is good—and easy to understand
Before I became a copywriter, I was a journalist for several years. And if there’s one thing I learned from working at newspapers across the country, it’s this: Get to the point.
So, let me get to the point: don’t mess around with flowery prose or obscure references or words that could appear in the Scripps National Spelling Bee. You’re wasting your time. And, more importantly, you’re wasting your readers’ time.
That doesn’t mean you should dumb down your writing. You can still be smart and provocative with simple words and short sentences. But it does mean you should do the heavy lifting so your readers don’t have to. That applies for any mass audience—whether it’s donors looking to make a large gift or teenagers considering which college to attend.
Follow the three C’s
We’ve all seen copy that looks like every other word was pulled from a thesaurus. In these over-written sentences, students “engage in conversation” and “build community.” (As opposed to talk and make friends.) Professors take an “interdisciplinary approach” to education and “facilitate collaboration.” (You mean they work with other departments, right?)
When you use jargon like that, you’re not communicating. You’re showing off. You’re telling the reader: You don’t matter—I do. And that’s the opposite of what you should be doing.
So what can you do to make sure you’re putting your readers first? Write like you speak, for starters. That means your writing should be:
After you’ve written something, read it out loud to see how it actually sounds. If it comes across as forced or fake, rewrite it. Because if you’re not believing what you wrote, your readers certainly won’t either.
Grade your work
Another good way to see how your writing stacks up is to run it through an online readability tool. (Here are two free options here and here.) These websites analyze a sample of your writing—syllables per word, words per sentence, etc.—and give you a readability score, plus a reading grade level.
And what grade level should you be aiming for? The sweet spot for a general audience is anywhere between 7th and 9th grade. That means your writing is easy to understand and won’t slow down your readers.
If that seems low, look at the reading grade levels of these best-selling authors:
- Stephen King = 6th grade
- Sheryl Sandberg = 7th grade
- Malcolm Gladwell = 9th grade
For comparison, here are the reading grade levels of two works that will leave most people scratching their heads:
- An academic paper about chess = 12th grade
- The Affordable Care Act = College freshman
Of course, you need to take your audience into account. But for almost all cases, you should be writing at a 9th-grade reading level or below. Anything above that, and you’re asking the reader to do too much. You should be communicating, not obfuscating.
Some final words
One of the best ways to become a better writer is to read. It doesn’t have to be anything fancy. It could be a popular sports website, a summer best-seller, heck, even a newspaper (which would warm my heart).
Take note of how professional writers use simple, powerful words. How they vary sentence structures and lengths to create a rhythm in their work. How they write for you, not themselves. And how they make reading effortless and enjoyable.
Now if only writing were so easy.