We talk simply. We use normal words, and are sentences are usually quite straightforward. But put someone in front of a keyboard, and there’s no telling how complicated they can write. So much business communications comes out as gobbledygook, whether it’s an internal memo, a job description, an instruction manual or a letter to customers.
Most people read comfortably at a Grade 8 level or lower. Seriously. Let that sink in for a moment.
Yes, there are exceptions. I’m not talking about lawyers, epidemiologists and lab researchers. Yes, they can read higher than a Grade 8. Much of what lawyers work with is at Grade 20 or higher.
If you paid me $200 per hour to suffer through legal texts at Grade 26 level, I would read it too. But on my own time, just like lawyers, I’ll read at a much lower level.
No, you don’t have to worry that you might be dumbing it down too much. If you don’t make your memos and letters and instructions simple for me to read, I won’t. Why? Because I’m lazy, just like all your other readers.
It’s never “dumbing it down” when you make it clearer for your readers.
A good guide to plain, simple writing in the . Not all of it applies to all types of writing, but it’s a great guide if ever you have questions. In the meantime, here are the top five ways to make your text easier to read right now, without dumbing it down.
1. Use shorter sentences
The single worst thing you can do to scare away readers is to write long, complex sentences. Usually we do this by adding extra clauses that begin with “whereas” or “because” or “given that” or “in light of” or some other explanation.
If you do this, separate the sentence into two or more. One sentence says what. The other sentence explains why. Each sentence delivers just one thought.
2. Use bullet lists
Some sentences get long-winded because they include lists. That adds a whole bunch of commas into a sentence, and that confuses people.
Lists in sentences aren’t too bad if they are short lists of single word items, like bread, butter and chocolate. But when each item in the list is long, the sentence gets unruly. Imagine placing this list of business priorities in sentence form:
- reducing lag time in material procurement
- developing a second-tier marketing strategy
- implementing an innovative employee recognition program
- upgrading the invoicing software to be compatible with the new shipping trackers
However, you might notice that these complex ideas are actually manageable when placed each on its own line. The magic of a bullet list is that it looks like a list and the reader doesn’t have to try to separate out each idea.
3. Use smaller words
This is the main area where people legitimately should be afraid of dumbing down their text. So you have to be strategic about what words you shorten, and who your audience is.
For a highly specialized lab-technician audience, just referring to a “molecule” might be confusing and unclear. They deal with molecules all day, every day. What type of molecule are you referring to? It can make a big difference to the meaning of the sentence.
For a general audience, referring to lipids and nucleic acids would be confusing and unclear, since they won’t have a clue as to what they are. They’ll understand better by just using the word “molecule”. Simpler words for simpler meanings. For this audience you want to – you need to – dumb it down.
But even for highly educated, specialized audiences, you should use short, simple words whenever possible. In fact, the more big, technical words you use, the more important it is to join them with simple words.
Never utilize; always use.
Never purchase; always buy.
Never initiate; always start.
You see, these are simple words that do not dumb down the text. Why don’t they dumb it down? Because the words are simpler, but the meanings remain the same. No dumbing it down.
4. Use verbs for actions and nouns for things
One of the strange things we humans do when writing for business, is that we like to turn verbs into nouns. This complicates sentences.
We don’t do something to develop better relationships. We do something for the development of better relationships.
We don’t assume that something is good. We make an assumption that something is good.
We don’t ask someone to approve the expenditure. We ask someone to give her approval for the expenditure.
There is no need to complicate your sentences like that. Make your writing simpler by saying what you mean. If it’s an action, use a verb.
5. Use shorter paragraphs
I’ll let you in on a little secret. Shorter paragraphs won’t change the grade level of your text one iota. In fact, they won’t make your text technically easier to read.
But large blocks of text look intimidating. We humans psychologically resist reading them. Any way to break your writing up into smaller portions makes it easier to read.
Shorter paragraphs will do that. So will images and frequent sub-headings. Grade level won’t change, but the success of your writing will.
Are you ready to write for your readers?
You know that the customer is always right. When you write, the “customer” is the reader, no matter the purpose of your writing. Make it easy for your reader, if you want him to:
- read what you write
- read more of what you write
- not gloss over parts of what you write
- understand what you mean
- take the action you desire
In the story of Mrs. D, she tried to read, gave up and, failing to understand, took the wrong action. Making your text readable and understandable should be your top priority when you write.
By the way, I said there were exceptions to the Grade 8 guideline, and that I was not referring to lawyers, epidemiologists and lab researchers. I was referring to people whose second language is English, or who never did well in school, and might have challenges reading at a Grade 8 level. If they are among your audiences, you might want to write at an even lower grade level.
Do you still worry that writing at a Grade 8 level or even lower would be dumbing down your text? Fear not! This blog post is written at Grade 5.3. And that’s not dumb!
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