“No College Necessary Strategies” for Tightening Your Copy
Recently, we chatted about how keeping your Flesch-Kincaid (FK) Grade Level between 5 and 8 makes your copy easier to read. Today you’re going to learn how to use the information from the FK test to lower your grade level score and tighten your copy.
I’ll use the MS Word Readability Statistics information for today’s note. If you use a different FK tool, the information may be listed differently, but the effect is the same.
Practical Strategies for Lowering Your “Averages”
The “working area” in Word’s Readability Stats that hold the key to lowering your FK is “Averages.” Lowering these averages will lower your FK Grade Level.
Characters per word
“Characters per word,” shows if your words are too long. In general, shorter words are better than longer words.
Many high school kids run to a thesaurus to find fancy words. I do the opposite. When I’m writing, long words often come to mind first. I don’t slow my writing to think of better choices. I do that when I edit. That’s where a good thesaurus comes in. Use yours to search for shorter words to replace longer ones.
However, when choosing shorter words, do not sacrifice precision. Your words must mean what you want. For example, I could have written “give up” instead of “sacrifice.” (Using two one-syllable words for one three-syllable word, usually a good choice.) But, I wanted the idea behind “sacrifice” that “give up” doesn’t carry.
Words per sentence
When you’re editing and come across a sentence that seems long, use Bob Bly’s Breath Test. Inhale normally. (Not a deep, swimmer’s breath). Read the sentence out loud. The sentence is too long if you struggle to finish it in one breath.
Rewrite sentences to break them into two (or three) smaller ones. Fragment sentences are fine. If they sound conversational. (Like these.)
Get rid of all semicolons (;). My personal rule: Semicolons have no place in direct-mail writing. A complex sentence with a semicolon is nothing more than two sentences stuck together. Chop that sentence in two.
Eliminate unneeded words like “that,” “the,” “if,” and any others you can remove without changing the meaning and conversational tone. Use words like “many” for more wordy phrases like “a lot of” or “must” for “have to.”
Shorten words per sentence by using contractions: “you’ll” for “you will” and so forth. Plus, using contractions adds to your conversational tone.
If you can’t break a sentence into two and still have it sound reasonable, use ellipses ( … ) and dashes (—). However, using these won’t lower your FK, even though they make your copy more readable.
A good strategy for finding the FK when using ellipses is this. Break the longer sentence into two sentences with the last and first words bolded. After doing the readability tests, go back and put ellipses and dashes in between the bolded words.
Sentences per paragraph
Of all your fixes, this is the easiest. With very rare exceptions, you should never have paragraphs longer than six lines. If you’re writing web copy, that absolute limit shrinks to four.
Increase Readability by Eliminating Passive Sentence
The bottom section of the MS Word readability stats shows one of the most important problems to fix: Passive sentences. These are sentences where the doer of the action comes after the verb: “The ball was hit by the boy.”
Passive sentences deaden your copy. Keep them below 5% of your total.
When editing, read carefully just for passive sentences. When you come across one, rearrange it so the person or thing doing the action comes before the verb.
“The supplement was discovered by nutritional scientists …” becomes “Nutritional scientists discovered the supplement …”
Sometimes you must use passive sentences. One common reason is to avoid assigning responsibility for an action. (President Reagan’s classic example: “Mistakes were made.”) If you think a passive sentence must be used, examine it carefully. If you’re not absolutely convinced it’s necessary, change it to an active sentence.
The cardinal rule of editing
Don’t bog down creativity by trying to follow these rules while writing. Always edit after you’ve written a major section or the entire piece.
This whole thread of discussion about the FK tool started with a question from AWAI Member Nate. He was worried he wouldn’t be able to write tight copy without having more than a high school English background.
I estimate we’ve covered 60% to 70% of what you need to write tight copy in today’s note. No college education necessary! I’ll be bringing you more simple strategies over the next several weeks.
The Professional Writers’ Alliance
At last, a professional organization that caters to the needs of direct-response industry writers. Find out how membership can change the course of your career. Learn More »