Simplify Your Copy: Copywriting Tip #3

Yesterday we talked about how the Flesch-Kincaid (FK) tool can make your copy easier to read. Today I’m going to show you how to use the FK information to make your copy stronger.

Remember this: Your FK is just a number. A low FK doesn’t ensure compelling copy. If you pursue a low FK score just for the sake of a low FK and ignore other principles of effective copywriting, your copy will fail.

I’ll use the Word Readability Statistics information for today’s article. If you use a different FK tool, the information may be listed differently. The effect is the same.

Two areas in Readability Stats hold the key to lowering your FK: “Averages” and “Readability.”

Characters per word

“Characters per word,” shows if your words are too long. Generally, shorter words are better than longer words.

Warning: When choosing shorter words, do not sacrifice precision or tone. Your words must mean what you want. For example, I could have written “give up” instead of “sacrifice.” But I wanted the impression that “sacrifice” conveys that “give up” doesn’t.

Words per sentence

Too many words in a sentence and your reader has to work not to lose track. You never want your reader to work hard when reading your copy.

When you’re editing and come across a sentence you think might be too long, use Bob Bly’s Breath Test. Inhale normally. Read the sentence out loud. If you struggle to finish the sentence in one breath, it’s too long.

Break longer sentences into two or three smaller ones. Fragment sentences are okay … if they sound conversational.

Eliminate unneeded words like “that,” “the,” “if,” and any others you can without changing meaning and conversational tone. Use words like “many” for wordy phrases like “a lot of,” or “must” for “have to.”

If you can’t break a sentence up and still keep its meaning, use ellipses ( … ) and dashes (—). Every so often you’ll want to have a longish sentence to preserve a natural rhythm.

Sentences per paragraph

Of all fixes, this is easiest. With rare exceptions, paragraphs should never be longer than five lines. With web copy, that shrinks to four.


The bottom section of the Word Readability Stats shows the percentage of passive sentences. These are sentences where the doer of the action comes after the verb: “The ball was hit by the boy.”

When editing, read your copy carefully just for passive sentences. When you come across one, rearrange it so the person or thing doing the action comes before the verb.

“This financial strategy was discovered by George Whitcomb …” becomes “George Whitcomb discovered …”

Sometimes you must use passive sentences. One common reason to use one is if the person doing the action is unknown. “Structural bracing was used on the bridge …”

However, if you think a passive sentence should be used, look at it carefully. If you’re not sure, change it to an active sentence.

The cardinal rule of editing

Don’t slow creativity by imposing these rules while writing. Edit after you’ve written a major section or the entire piece. Test it out and then share with me by leaving a comment here.

Bottom line for readability: Keep your writing — not your ideas — simple. You’re often trying to get across complex ideas to your reader. Don’t make his life more difficult by using complex language.

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Published: October 16, 2013

3 Responses to “Simplify Your Copy: Copywriting Tip #3”

  1. Could you take a look? (following the email series) Just starting and need to know if I have the "stuff" or potential. :) Thanks so much. (This is just a section/start):

    Do you remember the movie Edward Scissorhands?

    If so, remember the scene on how the mother tried her newest creams on Edward? These were creams and lotions she had been peddling all over town. She tried so hard to help him, but just ended up caking it on him, unsuccessfully. She really became frustrated that her amazing miraculous products would not "fix" him. She wanted him to look like everyone else.

    Well, sometimes I feel that way, especially as I grow older. It seems I am always trying the latest new creams, lotions, and supplements. Well, maybe I'm not caking them on, but I seem to keep trying the newest, hottest, and, of course, most natural products.

    This all would be funny if it weren't so sad, as I have spent so very much money. Actually, it has been thousands of dollars. And

    Guest (Doralyn)

  2. Hi Will!

    Great advise. I started using the FK tool a few years ago. It has improved my writing and helped me improve my editing skills.

    Thanks for your timely advise and suggestions.

    Guest (Fran)

  3. Just realized the cardinal rule of editing is extremely important. I have been having difficulty with the FK score during editing. Now, I'm realizing that the writing needs to be simple and conversational (or, at least, written like I talk as the case was here). I only just realized the importance of it after looking at a "kiss-off" letter that I wrote awhile back. For the heck of it, I looked at the FK score. Readability: 79.9. Grade level - 5.5. Thanks for the reminder.


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