Quick Tip:
How to Improve Your Writing by Making It Simpler

There is an easy way to keep your writing strong – as easy as pushing a button.

According to conventional wisdom, most Americans read at a seventh-grade level. I always wonder about that statistic, but it could well be true. And that's why it behooves us to keep our writing simple.

Copywriters, whose income depends on communicating with people in writing, tend to follow the following rules:

Short paragraphs. One with more than four sentences is rare. One-sentence paragraphs are not uncommon.

Short sentences. One with seven to 10 words is good. Longer sentences benefit from dashes (–) and ellipses (…).

If you use Microsoft Word, you can test the "readability" of anything you write by clicking on "Tools" and then "Options" and then "Spelling and grammar." You'll see a check box at the bottom that says "Show readability statistics." Click that. Then, after you spell-check your document, a box will pop up showing:

  • number of words
  • number of characters
  • number of paragraphs
  • number of sentences
  • sentences per paragraph
  • words per sentence
  • characters per word
  • percentage of passive sentences

It will also show two indicators that are based on a famous formula for readability (the Flesch-Kincaid system) that measures reading ease (based on 100 points) and grade level.

I use this regularly and find it very helpful. Invariably, when my reading score gets too high (10th grade or higher), the piece I'm writing isn't working. Elaborate prose is usually an indication of imprecise thinking. Imprecise thinking is the root of bad writing.

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The Professional Writers’ Alliance

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Published: August 18, 2003

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