“Whether you like it or not, life is one long sales pitch – and most of that selling is done in writing.” – Drayton Bird, legendary direct marketer
Would you like your writing to be more persuasive and inspiring?
Are visitors to your website stubbornly refusing to read your content?
Do you worry that people ignore your memos?
If so, you’re not alone.
Many people struggle to write in a way that speaks to the reader, and this goes double for those most educated. And honestly, I blame school and the higher education system.
At the end of this post, I’ll show you a tool that’s completely free, and can be a God-Send when your writing is seeming stodgy and boring.
But first, ask yourself this:
During your education, did you ever feel that the best, most worthy writing was “more impenetrable”? That the education system rewards those whose writing is more “wordy”, or more difficult? Perhaps you learned to imitate it. And if you did, you probably got better marks.
110 Stanford undergraduates were polled about their writing habits. Here’s what was learned
- 86.4% admitted using complicated words in an academic essay to make the essay seem more valid and intelligent.
- Nearly Two-Thirds of the sample group admitted to using a thesaurus to find more complicated words.
No wonder then, that these habits follow professional people into business, into medicine, into law and finance.
But unfortunately, in the real world, you want people to read what you write. Not grade it.
One single blog post clearly can’t teach you to sell. But it can show you some things you may be doing wrong if you want people to read what you have to say.
Why academic writing is where to learn what habits to avoid like the plague
Here are some common features of academic writing:
1. Gray walls of type
David Ogilvy, one of the true geniuses of marketing, coined this phrase, I think.
(Image from Denny Hatch’s TargetMarketingMag.com. You’ll see the right-hand image, a full page advert by Ogilvy, leads the eye around the page much better than the article on the left.)
Your eyes tire quickly – if you’re like most people, you prefer to scan documents.
Who has the patience to read through pages of small print, with no variations of sentence size or paragraph length?
Use subheadings, bold and italic fonts, images, bullet-points. These are all elements that help another human to understand what you’re trying to say.
Incidentally, you know who does use Gray Walls of Type?
The devious bastards who write Terms and Conditions for banks, insurance companies etc.
This is not an accident.
They’ve studied the evidence. So they know that you won’t bother to read the important legal information if they make it look daunting enough.
You, presumably, are not trying to actively discourage reading.
2. Long paragraphs and long sentences
This is often combined with the “gray-walls-of-type” syndrome.
If text is not easy to read, people won’t read it.
A sentence of 29 words or more is very difficult to read. A good guideline is to keep to between 9 and 12 words. And certainly no more than 20.
Paragraphs longer than seven lines discourage reading.
3. Long, difficult or obscure words
Most industries has its words that are unique to them. Words that have a very specific meaning that can’t be dumbed-down. And that’s okay.
What’s not okay is using words to make yourself sound more intelligent than the reader.
From Compete.com, here’s a list of the word people most commonly check in the dictionary:
(You’ll notice that there are a couple of odd ones there – but let’s assume that the people looking for the definition of love are wanting to put it as a quote in a Valentine’s card…)
The New York Times also has tons of data that they mine from users of their online newspaper – there’s a good article about this at Nieman Lab
If you want to communicate – and there’s no other reason why you’d be writing – why put up a barrier between you and the reader?
There’s another problem, too. A study at Princeton suggests that using complex words when not necessary actually makes you seem less intelligent. [Consequences of Erudite Vernacular Utilized Irrespective of Necessity: Problems with Using Long Words Needlessly]
4. Overusing the Passive Tense
Okay, here’s an example of the passive tense, in case you’re not sure what it is:
(Example from William Strunk’s Elements of Style)
My first visit to Boston will always be remembered by me. (Active version would be “I’ll always remember my first visit to Boston”)
There were a great number of dead leaves lying on the ground. (Active version would be “Dead leaves covered the ground”)
The academic world loves the passive tense! It feels less bold, and maybe because of this, it also seems more impartial.
It’s not anymore impartial, of course. It just removes your sentence’s vigor. And as a side-effect, usually makes your sentence longer than it needs to be.
You probably won’t be able to completely get rid of it, but limiting it is good practice, because it just makes your writing better.
When you find that your writing could be tightened-up, or lacks energy, there’s a high chance you’re overusing the passive tense.
Anyway, the free tool I mentioned earlier. It’s called the Hemingway App, and it’s a great tool to improve lots of aspects of your writing. You could find out the reading level of your writing in Microsoft Word, but the advantage of this App is that it checks your text for use of the passive tense, and also for overuse of adverbs. Check it out here…
Did you like this post? Did you try the Hemingway App and find it useful? Disagree with this post? Let me know in the comments…