How to Write Well: The World’s Simplest Formula — Part 2
Clarity of Expression
Yesterday I told you my simple formula for writing well: expressing compelling thoughts clearly. I then discussed the first part of that formula in detail, revealing what I have learned about understanding and finding compelling thoughts. We stopped before getting into the second part of my formula: Expressing those thoughts clearly.
By that I mean the ease with which your readers can “get” your compelling thought and the proof that follows. This is a very important part of the definition. It is just as important as the compelling thought.
Memorize the following sentence: The easier it is to comprehend, the more likely it is that your reader will find it to be true.
There is a new science called Cognitive Fluency which supports this assertion. Among other things, it studies the effect of simple language on readers. What researchers have found is that a simpler statement has more credibility than a more complex one — even if they both mean the same thing. It appears, the scientists say, that our brains are hardwired to trust simpler (and familiar) things.
New writers don’t understand this. They operate on the theory that good writing is pretty or impressive. They strive to make their copy intellectually and emotionally impressive or even intimidating. They have been miseducated into believing that complexity is a sign of good thinking. And so they complicate their writing with complex sentences and arcane diction.
This is a big mistake — a mistake that is obviously foolish if you think about it for a moment. After all, if you have gone to the trouble of coming up with a really good idea, why would you want to hide it with obscure words and references?
The best tool I have found to help writers keep their language clear and uncomplicated is the Flesch-Kincaid Readability Test. The FK (as it is known) looks at the length of your sentences, how many syllables there are in each word, and other data. The result is a score that indicates how easy the text is to read. At Early to Rise, our policy was to keep the FK under 7.5 — which means the average seventh-grader should be able to read and understand it easily.
Let me give you an example of what I’ve been talking about here. What follows is a paragraph by a seasoned financial writer. I had asked him for a brief summary of the “Big Idea” for his next essay. Here’s what he sent me:
“Simon Properties is making good on its promise to swallow up the minnows. It’s buying mall owner Prime Properties for $2.3 billion and not even using up all the cash it’s been hoarding to take advantage of opportunities in the marketplace. Simon is big and flush with cash. And it’s doing what big bad companies should be doing … beating up their little brothers, grabbing the best deals out there … getting bigger … and capturing market share from other companies.”
I emailed back, telling him I could see, by reading between the lines, that he had a good idea in his mind. But he had failed to identify the core of it. He had failed to turn it into a “Big Idea” he could base his essay on. Here’s what I said in my email:
“You say that Simon Properties is a good buy because it is buying up smaller, cash-starved businesses. This is a sound proposition, but it’s not a compelling idea. It’s really just an assertion. To make it emotionally compelling, you have to make it both more universal and more unique. You have to find the idea behind your idea.
“In short, you have to find something that would make your reader sit up and take notice. You have to give him an idea — preferably in a single phrase — that he could repeat that night at a dinner party, something that would launch an interesting discussion.
“For example, you might have said, ‘There are companies — I call them Sharks — that outperform the market by three-to-one by eating up good profitable companies that are small and easy to eat.’
“That is an engaging idea. The reader gets it immediately. He wants to know more.
“But to make this work, you would need to prove to your reader that, in today’s market, Sharks are good investments. Only after you have done that will he be interested in your assertion about Simon Properties.”
To help writers understand what I mean by a compelling idea, I ask them to write their compelling idea on top, above their copy. What I often get in reply is a full paragraph that explains the idea. When I see an entire paragraph above the copy, I know — without even reading it — that the writer hasn’t identified a truly compelling idea. And if that paragraph contains long, complex sentences, then I know he’s off base.
Since recognizing the two key components of good writing — a “Big Idea” and clarity of expression — I’ve insisted that all essays or promotions given to me for review have at the top of the page a one-sentence explanation of the main idea and the FK score.
If that one-sentence idea doesn’t impress me, I send the piece back without reading it. I know the writing I’m being asked to review is muddled. And muddled writing is never good.
If the one-sentence idea is good, then I look to the other signal I insist on: the FK rating posted just below the one-sentence explanation. And if the FK score is above 7.5, it gets rejected too.
I reject it because I have found over many years that essays and advertisements that have high FK scores don’t get results. I used to think that was because they don’t get read. That is certainly part of the reason. But now I understand from learning about Cognitive Fluency, that it’s also because they don’t get believed.
So that is the definition: Good writing is the skill of expressing compelling thoughts clearly. To come up with compelling thoughts you must read until you experience an a-ha! moment. And then you must prove your promises and claims with clean, simple language — language that scores 7.5 or below on the FK scale.
This discipline has saved me lots of time and has accelerated the learning curve of every writer who has worked under my direction. I recommend it to you.
We hope to see you back next week for another exploration into the writer’s life. Until then, tell us what you think. Comment below to let us know.