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Feb 13, 2014 | Insights

Your Writing: Profound or Just Badly Done?

In his recent e-newsletter, Rick Schwartz, nonprofit communications expert, discussed Rudolf Flesch, the Flesch Kincaid Readability Test and recommendations for writing your nonprofit's materials "in plain English." What follows is an excerpt from this wonderfully funny – and informative – piece; the full text of the article is available on his website at schwartztalk.com.

Writing to Move to Action, Not to Impress

[Rudolf] Flesch's – and my – battle is for the easily-measurable and controllable mechanics of writing simple words, simple sentences and simple paragraphs so people can understand you.

Yes, sometimes writers need a specialized vocabulary, abstract concepts and a primary knowledge of other subjects to get complex ideas across to readers. But I have never run into a situation when a nonprofit couldn't explain something more simply and more convincingly.

More often than not, difficult text is a result of the writer's mistaken belief that the harder something is to read, the more intelligent it must be. (The corollary is that people who speak with British accents are always smarter. Of course, that may be true. Note that all Biblical figures and famous Greeks and Romans in the movies have British accents.)

I argue instead that poor writing techniques are almost always at fault.

My 2nd grade teacher was right? Darn.

There's a science to sentence structure.

Indeed. Flesch writes in How to Write Plain English:

"At first blush you may think this is a very crude way of dealing with writing. Writing means conveying ideas from one mind to another. To use a mechanical gadget for this doesn't seem like an intelligent approach.

"But wait a minute. I spent several years of my life doing the underlying research for this formula…It works because it is based on the way the human mind works.

"When you read a passage, your eyes and mind focus on successive points on the page. Each time this happens, you form a tentative judgment of what the words mean up to that point. Only when you get to a major punctuation mark – a period, a colon, a paragraph break – does your mind stop for a split second, sum up what it has taken in so far, and arrive at a final meaning of the sentence or paragraph.

"The longer the sentence, the more ideas your mind has to hold in suspense until its final decision on what all the words mean together. That means more mental work for the reader. So the longer a sentence, the harder it is to read."

Are you insulted? Flesch just talked to you like a 7th grader.

By the way, according to the Flesch-Kincaid test on my Microsoft Word, the above 4 paragraphs read at a Grade 7.1 level with no passive sentences and 4.2 characters per word. This entire e-blast from top to bottom reads at Grade 8.6. Did you feel "talked down to"?

Take These Three Easy Steps

I'm not talking about insider language (jargon), poor choice of topics, no understanding of the audience, or little grasp of the subject matter (although I will take up those topics someday). I'm just discussing word length and choice, sentence structure, and when to end the darn paragraph.

Fix those alone and you'll improve your readability by half or more. Just follow these 3 simple rules:

  1. Conduct the Flesch-Kincaid test after every piece you write: articles, direct mail, letters, web copy, even ads. Shoot for an 8th grade reading level.
  2. No passive sentences. Even if you must use complex language or profound concepts (and you usually don't have to, unless you're showing off), passive sentences are usually just bad writing.
  3. Use readable words. Here's a link to a free downloadable guide from the Group Health Research Institute that tries to teach medical personnel how to write in English (good luck with that).

Most of your readers have no incentive, so make it as easy as possible on them.

Hey, I love language, but your audiences are volunteer readers, not captives. Make it hard on them with poor writing and you'll lose fans quickly.


About Rick Schwartz

Rick Schwartz’s 36-year career weaves communications with his commitment to nonprofit organizations. He spent half his career with the Rhode Island Foundation, one of the nation’s largest community foundations, and the Mass. Council on the Arts and Humanities, a premier state arts agency. In both cases, he was in charge of all communications, deeply involved with policy-setting, and working directly with grantees.

He spent the other years as a journalist, in government (Mass. Senate Committee on Human Services and Elderly Affairs), and consulting with nonprofits on communications and strategic planning.

His favorite work is what he does now: consulting with nonprofits and foundations on communications and strategic planning, under Rick Schwartz/StraightTalk.