This essay originally was published on November 11, 2021, with the email subject line CT No.102: "Brevity works better." It's the second of three essays, the other two below:
Griping about writing style is so much easier than writing my usual essays. It's so easy to let annoyances out rather than affirm. I admittedly feel squicky about this one, but also, I wish I could read better writing at work.
Disclaimer: If you're not a native English speaker and are not regularly publishing newsletters or content in English, this advice is not for you. I am in awe of anyone who writes or speaks in their non-native language, especially in business, since I, like many Americans, have no comprehension of how fluency in multiple languages feels. Keep on writing; you're doing great.
Today's advice is for folks who regularly write content for publication in their native language of English, either in a newsletter or marketing content or blog posts or monographs for well-respected tech and design publishers:
Y'all need to write shorter sentences.
In newsletters, in UX writing, in "SEO blog posts," in white papers and ebooks: write shorter sentences. Write with specificity and clarity. Value brevity, please. For our eyes. For anyone reading in translation. For anyone with difficulty comprehending long sentences. For the brains of everyone who thinks B2B writing is on the spectrum of boring to terrible.
The two-clause rule of thumb
Not every sentence needs to sell never-worn baby shoes, but we can certainly limit most to two clauses. Long sentences are harder to read on a computer, whether you're a new to English or a lifelong reader. For accessibility, shorter sentences are almost always better.
Why do we think sentences need to be so long to be business-like? In grammar school, we learned that sentences with complex clauses are the sign of more mature writers. We learned to read and write more complex sentences each passing year, so we could eventually read and write fluently and critically. But our teachers were ensuring we passed our reading comprehension tests, which covered great literary works and not some startup's marketing ebook.
Complex sentences may be better for some formats, like world-building fiction. But mass communications of the 20th century developed more streamlined methods designed to get the point across, quick. That narrative simplicity worked, probably too well, but let's apply some brevity lessons to 21st century business content.
When writing business reports or web copy, think daily newspaper and not that essay written five hours before it was due. Start with critical info. Add crucial details. Tell a story for added engagement. Omit filler whenever possible.
The automated reading score that makes bad sentences seem good
Overly complex sentences are "better" in the Flesch–Kincaid grade level formula that linger in word processors and content scoring tools. I've written about the bullshit that is Flesch–Kincaid before: the American military developed the method in the 1970s, and it scores sentences by comparing ratios of characters, syllables and words. Flesch–Kincaid was never based on actual human reading comprehension. It's certainly not a user-tested, human-centered metric appropriate for the 2020s.
Other readability metrics have been developed in the decades since, but like all single-use content metrics technologists champion, they misrepresent communication's complexity. All readability metrics measure are characters or syllables per word and words per sentence. They do not measure actual human readability, a score best determined by other humans.
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