Your English Teachers Were Wrong. So Was Shakespeare.
Your Writing Should Be Simple And Easy To Read.
Written by Rich Harshaw.
When I was in Boy Scouts, one of our leaders, Mr. Colby, was a certified, bona fide, and unapologetic NERD. He constantly said stuff that left all of us scratching our heads and wondering what the heck he was talking about. If the answer to a question was yes, instead of a simple “yes,” he’d say “affirmative.” Instead of telling us where we were headed on a hike, he’d give us latitude and longitude coordinates. Like that.
Usually we’d just roll our eyes and ignore him.
Then one night after a hearty campfire meal, Mr. Colby put his hands behind his head, leaned back in his chair, and pronounced to the entire group,
“My gastronomical satiety admonishes me to such an extent that I am no longer able to indulge myself beyond the limits of dietary integrity.”
He said it with a straight face. We all just looked at him with blank stares.
(At the bottom of this article, see how translating this gibberish into English can win you a free book)
We all had that wacky English teacher at one point that conned us into thinking that for writing to be “good” it had to be borderline impossible to understand. A few heavy doses of Shakespeare will do that to you.
But if you want to be a powerful writer (marketer), then you’re going to have to forget everything you ever leaned in English class about good writing. Instead, do your reader a favor and WRITE LIKE PEOPLE TALK.
It’s called the “Plain English Approach,” and it works because, well… your audience is usually comprised of people. Yes, I know. Some audiences are very sophisticated people—like doctors, lawyers, and (yuck!) English professors. But even those fancy-pants professionals put their pants on one leg at a time and appreciate a little straightforward talking.
1950s copywriter extraordinaire Rosser Reeves summed it up best when he said:
“Let’s say you’ve got $1,000,000 tied up in your little company and suddenly, for reasons unknown to you, your advertising isn’t working and your sales are going down. And everything depends on it. Your future depends on it; your family’s future depends on it. I walk into this office and sit down in this chair. Now, what do you want from me? Fine writing? Do you want masterpieces? Do you want glowing things that can be framed by copywriters? Or do you want to see the #!@%$*&#@! sales curve stop going down and start moving up?” Rosser Reeves
Advertising ain’t Shakespeare. So with that intro, I give you five principles of plain English writing:
Tip 1: Short Sentences: Want to know how to write simple, easy-to-read stuff? Get out a copy of the USA Today. I’ve heard that it’s written on a sixth grade level; I’m not sure if that’s true, but it sure as heck is easy to read. Read this excerpt and look at how they’ve used super short sentences and easy-to-understand language… even though the topic is not necessarily simple:
Possible Ebola case surfaces in Canada
HAMILTON, Ontario (AP) — A woman who arrived from Congo and fell ill in Canada is being tested for hemorrhagic viruses, including Ebola, doctors said Tuesday. The identity of the woman has not been released. She was admitted to a Hamilton hospital on Sunday and has been described as drifting in and out of consciousness. The viral hemorrhagic fevers suspected are a group of contagious tropical infections that are life-threatening. Doctors say the illness could also be malaria or meningitis, an infection of the fluid of the spinal cord and brain
For your purposes, keep sentences short—fifteen to twenty words is good. Anything over twenty-five words starts to tax the reader’s ability to follow your thoughts. If you’re not sure, break one long sentence into two short ones.
Tip 2: Simple Language: Simply put, avoid all “five dollar words.” Always use the familiar word to the far-fetched one. Use concrete words instead of abstract ones. Use short words instead of long ones. There are no bonus points for winning the spelling bee in business.
Here are a few examples:
|Instead of this…
Tip 3: Contractions Approved: When you speak, you use contractions, don’t you? There’s no law that says you can’t write them, is there?
Let us try that again: When you speak, you use contractions do not you? There is no law that says that you cannot write them, is there?
See how dumb that sounds in print?
If you want to get an idea of how weird it sounds to hear un-contracted dialogue, watch the 2010 Western Drama, True Grit. For reasons unknown, the Coen brothers decided to completely de-contract every ounce of the screenplay, and the ‘do nots’ and ‘I wills’ stick out like sore thumb. It’s kind of funny in a movie. It makes you sound like a dork in real life when you’re writing. Here’s a better idea: use contractions.
Tip 4: Easy On The Articles: Did you know that just twenty-five words account for one-third of all English writing? Here’s the list:
the, and, a, too, of, I, in, was, that, it, he, you, for, had, is, with, she, has, on, at, have, but, me, my, not
And out of those 25, ‘the’ accounts for 5% by itself… and ‘and’ takes the silver with 3%.
Half the time, these words are simply “filler” words that aren’t necessary to convey a meaning. Consider the following:
- “evidence we have” instead of “the evidence we have”
- “consumers” instead of “the consumer”
- And can often be replaced by a comma or semicolon
- That can be left out half (of) the time
- “he said he agreed” instead of “he said that he agreed”
- “the policy anniversary date” instead of “the anniversary date of the policy”
Tip 5: Live Words: Not to go all Grammar Nazi on you, but most writing contains nothing more than nouns and adjectives, glued together with the “be verbs” is, was, are, and were.
To bring your writing alive, try using more action verbs:
© 2014 – 2016, Rich Harshaw. All rights reserved.