Category Archives: Write for Results

Has remote working changed business writing skills?

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business writing skills scott keyser

A couple of weeks ago I delivered a Lunch ‘n Learn session about business writing skills at a property client. The session was called — perhaps prematurely — ‘How to write Human in a post-COVID world’. (The attendees still gave it a satisfaction rating of 96%.) One of the things I asserted was that b2b communications have changed as a result of the pandemic, with people being forced to work from home. Seems to me that the line between ‘personal’ and ‘professional’ has blurred, which is a good thing if we want to improve our writing skills.

What do you think?

Business writing, unfiltered

A couple of years ago I was speaking to Laura, a client who was creating a training course in proposals best practice. In the opening section of the course she mocks the honking proposal cliché where the bidder thanks the client profusely in the covering letter for giving them the opportunity to bid. She refers to this as ‘the grovelling opening’.

This really made me laugh, because it’s exactly what bidders do: ‘We are ever so grateful for the opportunity to bid for this esteemed piece of work…’ or some such rubbish. (Clients don’t care how you feel or how pathetically grateful you are for being allowed to sweat blood to respond to their onerous tender. They just want you to get to the point.)

But my client — having lambasted ‘the grovelling opening’ — then blew it by saying she’d probably have to get it ‘professionalised’ by my manager.

In the nicest possible way, I hit the roof.

The left-field opener that Laura was considering in her training course is exactly what I mean by ‘personality’ in written comms. It’s that slightly cheeky, light-hearted, real, human tone that gives business writing its flair. Calling out that honking great cliché — rather than towing the party line — would have made her training course stand out.

The remote-working effect

And that’s got me thinking about the Lunch ‘n Learn session I delivered for the property client. For the past 18 months, many of us have been working from home under lockdown. We’re all zooming or MS Teaming with colleagues and clients, trading sharp suits for tracksuits, T shirts or, in some cases, cleverly disguised pyjamas. I wonder if people are more forgiving of — maybe even reassured by — this enforced informality. Is remote working altering how we perceive each other and how we communicate?

Picture the scene: your baby wakes up and starts crying when you’re on a Zoom call. Or your dog’s barking in the middle of a Facebook Live (which has happened to me more than once!). Or your teenagers are fighting over the PlayStation. Or the washing machine is pinging because its cycle has finished.

In those circumstances, can you really, in all honesty and with a straight face, write things like ‘We are a partner-led, full-service law firm with 35 offices and 17,000 staff around the world, offering unrivalled best-in-breed advice on a wide range of multi-jurisdictional, pan-regulatory, anti-competition issues for our global clients’?

Can you really get away with that MBA-itis, business jargon or management-speak?

We’re now operating in a setting where the personal and the ‘professional’ have merged like never before, where the lines between the two are fuzzy. It was always a false distinction anyway. People actually realise that by bringing their whole personal selves to work — even if it’s at the kitchen table — everyone benefits.

Business writing skills are personal

I’m reminded of the mastermind I joined last year run by Penny and Thomas Power, which was called ‘Business is Personal’, because to me it is. If you don’t bring your whole person, your whole personality to your work, to your business, to your writing, your words won’t land. You won’t make that connection with the reader.

Remember that live BBC interview with the American Professor Robert Kelly, who was talking about South Korean politics?

If you recall, he’s answering the interviewer’s questions, with gravitas and erudition, when his four-year old daughter, Marian, sashays in unannounced and stands behind him. He’s trying to push her away while keeping a straight face. He’s clearly agonising over whether to ignore or acknowledge her while responding to the interviewer’s questions. Trouble is, now the door to his office is wide open. Suddenly his nine-month old son, James, trundles in in his baby stroller to join his big sister. He doesn’t want to miss out on the fun.

business writing skills scott keyser

Enter Character #4, stage left. The Professor’s Korean wife hurtles in to the office, crouched low to stay out of the camera shot but in full view of millions of viewers, grabs the kids and pulls them out of the office. But she’s left the door open so, with one arm lassoed around her kids, she hyper-extends the other arm to the door handle and pulls it shut. You can only imagine how many of the Professor’s synapses were firing as this farce unfolded.

The video went viral (more than 44 million views on YouTube to date). I’ve just watched it again: it makes me laugh every time. My point is that we accidentally got a hysterical insight into the Prof and his life. That he’s a regular, normal, loving, family guy, husband and father made people see him as just another human, as vulnerable as the rest of us. People fell in love with him. Now he’s famous…just not for South Korean politics.

How to improve business writing skills

What does all that mean for us as writers? How do we use that to improve our writing?

It’s about giving ourselves permission to be human, warts ‘n all. To get over the myth of ‘professionalism’, which forces many unintentional business writers to leave their personality at the door, or at the top of the page. World-class writing combines great content with personality. To do this takes courage.

Take heart. Your business writing skills will be transformed.

~~~

Scott is The Writing Guy, helping smart professionals find their voice, write Human and get the results they want from the words they write. In other words, to help you improve your business writing skills.

Listen to the podcast episode 152 related to this topic, ‘Has working from home changed how we write?‘. Then subscribe to The Writing Guy podcast to learn more about business writing skills and how to improve your writing.

how to improve writing skills scott keyser

How to improve writing skills with Verbitis

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Yesterday I had an interesting conversation with a friend called Vicky Ross, a talented coach, therapist and NLP Master Practitioner. We were talking about language, its fascinating patterns…and of course, that led me to thinking about how to improve writing skills.

Vicky helped me to better understand the idea of Nounitis. I’ve spoken about Nounitis in the past. It’s the overuse of nouns, particularly abstract ones.

To take you back to school with a quick reminder, a noun is a naming word, and the cure for Nounitis is Verbitis, or using more verbs than nouns. Verbs are words of action and doing.

Nounitis is rife in B2B communications. Someone might say “She has responsibility for the implementation of the project.” What the hell does that mean?

“Implementation” can mean so many different things. It’s a vague, abstract term.

I want to take you through a little exercise. I’m going to give you a series of words and I want you to observe how your brain computes those words. There will be three different types of words:

  • tangible, concrete, common nouns (things you could put in a wheelbarrow)
  • abstract nouns (adjectives or verbs that have turned into nouns)
  • verbs (action words)

Are you ready?

Learn how to improve writing skills:  an exercise

how to improve writing skills scott keyser

For each of the three types of words, I want you to observe what happens in your brain. Notice, too, how your body reacts.

First, the common nouns:

  • bed
  • chair
  • apple
  • pen
  • book
  • computer

Just observe how your brain deals with those.

Now for some abstract nouns:

  • freedom
  • democracy
  • liberty
  • consideration
  • implementation
  • responsibility

That’s the second list. Again, notice how you reacted to them.

And for the third list, verbs:

  • running
  • writing
  • speaking
  • jumping
  • walking

There you have three very different types of words.

What did you observe happening to your body when you read them?

When Vicky and I did this mini-exercise, I looked up to the right when she recited the abstract nouns. That’s how my body responded when trying to make sense of those words. The verbs seemed easier for me. I looked straight ahead or slightly to the left.

The point I’m making is that the common nouns are things we can see and touch. The abstract nouns are much harder to compute because they’re intellectual, abstract concepts and demand more processing power from the human brain. Since verbs are words of doing and action, they have movement attached to them.

Neither type of noun had movement. They were static. They didn’t go anywhere. There was no energy to them. In contrast, the verbs had energy — but you would expect that.

The benefits of Verbitis

There are two benefits when using more verbs than nouns. how to improve writing skills scott keyserFirst, they literally give your writing more energy. Second, verbs conjure mental images in our brains, with little or no effort.

With abstract nouns, the brain has to work to associate some kind of image from our own experiences. That’s why verbs, Verbitis and curing Nounitis are so important if we want to improve our writing skills.

There’s one more point: the relationship between movement/motion and emotion. Static, abstract nouns — for me, at least — have no emotion attached to them. There’s neither motion nor emotion. Whereas the verbs lend themselves to emotion.

For example, if I gave you the abstract phrase, “freedom from slavery,” (two abstract nouns, “freedom” and “slavery”) I can say that I agree with that concept. Like most decent people, I don’t agree with slavery or servitude. Contrast the impact of that with the sentence, “The plantation owner unchained the slave and freed him.” I’m using more words, but I’m also using two verbs (“unchained” and “freed”). Clearly, I’m creating a picture, depicting a scene.

You might say we’re losing brevity — and of course we are — but I know which type of writing I’d prefer to read.

How to improve writing skills for better results

Using verbs and simple language while leavening and scaling down the amount of abstract language you use is going to improve your writing.

I hope this was useful information and that it will lead you to new ideas on how to improve your writing skills. I know it’s spurred me to learn more about NLP and patterns of language — particularly ‘nominalisation’, or turning words into nouns.

If you’re interested in learning more about my Big Five writing techniques, including Verbitis, connect with me on LinkedIn and join us for my LinkedIn webinar on the Big Five, on the 28th of July 2021. 

Brand Builders TV Scott Keyser Persuasive Writing

Persuasive writing begins with the end

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Would you agree there’s too much information about persuasive writing out there? That when it’s time to learn something that will build your brand, it takes longer to sift through bad information than it does to actually learn the skill — especially if it’s about improving your writing?

That’s why I’m thrilled to be part of Brand Builders TV, where an impressive array of professionals, experts and proven entrepreneurs from the Brand Builders Club come together to freely share what they’ve learnt over their careers.

In the episode Nail the Nasty Nine Writing Issues, you’ll not only learn the names of the nine writing problems that stop us connecting with our readers. You’ll also get an up-close look at the first three.

#1 is about ‘We-‘ing all over the reader, which the article ‘Write to Persuade and Convert’ expands on. The second, about non-existent planning, is explained in the article ‘Powerful Written Communication’. And finally, here we are at article #3 in the series, which will teach you why it’s important to know where your written content will end — before you even begin.

The other six writing issues will be forthcoming, but for now, why not go back and read those first two articles? Then you’ll be sure to miss nothing on your journey to bringing more and more customers and clients onboard.

If you’re more of a digital learner, you can view the entire recorded Brand Builders TV episode here:  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MdLSJrXQ2fU

Your writing is about to get a lot more persuasive.

Persuasive writing knows where it’s going

As writers, when we’re not clear about where we’re going or what we’re trying to achieve, we run the risk of producing something that rambles and meanders. It’s going to drive the reader mad! It’s more effective and efficient to know where we’re going. We must identify our destination.

Brand Builders TV Scott Keyser Persuasive Writing

Persuasive Writing does not have a vague message or objective

The training I deliver to people around the world has little to do with pretty words or mellifluous, musical cadences (we get into that at mastery level).

What I’m talking about here is the sheer mechanics of great writing, and part of that is being really clear about our destination. It’s less about prettiness, more about behaviour change. We’re seeking, through the written word, to change the reader’s behaviour. That’s why this issue is one of the Nasty Nine.

Facts. Feelings. Actions.

What can we do about vague writing? Nail, define and articulate our purpose or objective. For this, I use a three-letter acronym: F.F.A. — Facts. Feelings. Action.

Imagine a three-column table. The first is Facts, or what you want your reader to know. The second is what you want them to feel. The last one is the action you want them to take as a result of reading your words.

For the first column, there are probably a lot of things you want your reader to know. Generally, provided you know your subject, this shouldn’t be a problem.

Now jump over to the right-hand column, Action. Typically, in any communication, there’s one thing you want your reader to do. To instruct you, give you a mandate, engage you or hire you, agree to meet with you, give you some information, send you a document…that’s usually pretty straightforward.

But where persuasive writing gets interesting is in the middle column, Feelings. What emotions do you want to evoke in your reader to drive the action? These emotions might include, but are not limited to:

Fear

You might want to scare them about something…like being laid off,  losing market share, missing out on an opportunity, their program failing, catching Covid, missing out on promotion.

Greed

What do they want more of? What are they greedy for? Money, time, information, power, control, influence, reputation, social media engagement.

Motivation

Use your words to motivate them to take action, energise them to pursue a particular course of action.

Anger

Get your reader angry about injustices in the world, to raise awareness and galvanise action.

Excitement

Get their pulse racing by describing attractive results, outcomes and benefits.

Brand Builders TV Scott Keyser Persuasive Writing

When you do F.F.A. properly, you break the back of your document. You’re cooking with gas. What do you want your reader to know? What do you want them to feel? And what action do you want them to take as a result of that knowledge and emotion?

Emotion matters in persuasive writing

What’s the role of emotion in persuasion? Why does emotion matter in persuasive writing? The answer lies 2,500 years ago, in the 4th century B.C., when Aristotle nailed the topic of rhetoric. He identified three persuasive ‘appeals’: Logos (logic); Ethos (credibility, character, reputation); Pathos (passion, emotion). He said all three were equally important, meaning that if we leave emotion out of our writing, we’re missing out. Logic makes people think, but emotion makes them act.

What’s your objective?

I hope you’re feeling more confident about your ability to improve your writing skills. What will you do with this new knowledge?

If persuasive writing for bids, tenders, sales pages, blogs, webpages and articles is something you’d like to learn more about, then subscribe to the Brand Builders TV YouTube channel for more episodes. Or, go straight to my second video, Nail The Nasty Nine Writing Issues, Part Two, which expands on issues 4 to 6.

My time in the Brand Builders Club has not only helped me to build my brand as The Writing Guy. It’s given me invaluable feedback, accountability and networking opportunities. Why not join us? Your registration comes with no commitment, and no risk — just growth.

words of history scott keyser

Words of history prove that writing matters

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Today is the 15th of June. This morning, thinking about what I was going to do for today’s podcast, I was drawing a bit of a blank. Then I looked in my On This Day book, an almanac of world events and words of history. Of course, today is a very significant day in the history of the British Isles, particularly England and English history.

Let me give you a clue. I’m going to give you something to read in Latin. You can guess why on earth I’m giving you words of history in Latin, and then there will be a grand reveal.

Here is the opening clause of an important historical document (Hint! Hint!).

Johannes del gracia rex Anglie, dominus Hibernie, dux Normannie, Aquitannie et comes Andegavie, archiepiscopis, episcopis, abbatibus, comitibus, baronibus, justiciariis, forestariis, vicecomitibus, prepositis, ministris et omnibus ballivis et fidelibus suis salutem.

And here’s yet another clue, in the translation:

John, by the grace of God, King of England, Lord of Ireland and Duke of Normandy in Aquitaine, and count of Anjou, to the archbishops, bishops, abbots, earls, barons, justices, foresters, sheriffs, stewards, servants, and all his bailiffs and faithful subjects, greeting.

What do these words of history mean?

Any guesses to what this hugely significant document was?

It’s of course Magna Carta, signed on the banks of the River Thames near Windsor, in a meadow called Runnymede. It was there that King John I of England affixed his royal wax seal on 15 June, 1215. The document’s full name was Magna Carta Libertatum, mediaeval Latin for ‘Great Charter of Freedoms’. Stephen Langton, the Archbishop of Canterbury, drafted it.

words of history scott keyser the writing guyThe purpose of this document was to make peace between unpopular King John (often referred to as Wicked or Evil, Nasty King John) and a group of rebel barons. It promised the protection of church rights, to keep the church free. Barons were to be protected from illegal imprisonment. It would give them access to swift justice and put limitations on feudal payments to the Crown. Furthermore, it was to be implemented through a council of 25 barons. As history would later show, neither side actually stood behind their commitments. The charter was annulled by Pope Innocent III, leading to the First Barons War (1216-1217). It was reissued by his young son, Henry III, in 1216 (although I understand it got watered down).

At the end of the First Barons War in 1217, it formed part of the Lambeth peace treaty. But as the fledgling English parliament passed new laws, Magna Carta lost a lot of its practical significance. Interestingly (and rather amusingly), it was never about the Barons being altruistic and selfless, wanting to protect the common man. It was really about looking out for themselves with baronial self-protection. I don’t think they gave two figs about the common man in the street or the villain in the fields!

Magna Carta: still significant

Magna Carta was described by Lord Denning (famous English lawyer and judge) as, ‘the greatest constitutional document of all time…the foundation of the freedom of the individual against the arbitrary authority of the despot’. Some elevated, 21-gun-salute language from the great man, there!

There are four copies of Magna Carta in existence: two in the British Library, one at Lincoln Castle and one at Salisbury Cathedral. I was there (or near there) the other day when I visited Stonehenge, which I’ve spoken about.

What’s the relevance in words of history for writers?

We’re no longer writing in Latin, unless we’re drafting a very archaic kind of constitutional law. Nonetheless, Magna Carta shows that in order to create and preserve freedoms, things need to be written down. The written word is a much more permanent record of what was agreed between two disputing parties than the spoken word. Yet, despite that, history has shown even that wasn’t enough to hold both parties to their commitments. However, it did serve as a model and an inspiration to other fledgling democracies  — notably the United States’ founding fathers and authors of the American Declaration of Independence.

Where would we be without the written word?

It’s likely that we would still be running around as hunter-gatherers, eating each other, beating each other up and killing each other. For me, the written word is probably man’s greatest invention. It’s the invention that has most promoted modern civilization. It has given us words of history, to remember, to learn from and to preserve for all time.

I am Scott Keyser, The Writing Guy, and I’d like to thank you for joining me for yet another article about how to improve writing skills. If you’d like to take your writing to the next level of quality, impact and results, let’s jump on a call and have a chat. You can book your slot here: https://calendly.com/scottkeyser91/.

 

Writing as therapy: how words can heal

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Girl with Glasses Sitting Wooden Table Workplace

As the sun sets on World Mental Health Day 2018 — though the issue is timeless and universal — I’m minded to talk about what I know best: writing.

Many words have been written about the power of writing to heal trauma, deal with emotional pain or just clarify our thoughts.

“I write because I don’t know what I think until I read what I say.”
Flannery O’Connor

Writing nails what we’re thinking, pinning our butterfly thoughts onto the green baize of the display case, so we can examine them more closely, from different angles, at different times and in different lights. It makes the emotion legible. This emotional legibility can externalise painful experiences, drawing some of the heat of the trauma and loosening its grip on our psyche. Observation without overwhelm.

This process of externalisation — of bringing what’s deep inside us out into the world, or just into our living room — is what we do when we ‘express’ ourselves (from the Latin, meaning to ‘push out’). We verbalise our thoughts in impermanent speech, then into semi-permanent writing (we can shred it afterwards if we want), and finally to the permanent record of publication, eg as a book or a blog, when we share it with the world. And as we push the experience out, we also push it away, ie we get distance on it. While not denying it, we separate ourselves from it to see it more clearly.

There’s something powerful about re-shaping random, chaotic thoughts into black marks on white paper. It’s like reversing cinema history: turning the noisy, technicolour drama inside our heads into a silent black and white movie on the page.

Many accounts of trauma talk about fragmentation — of sensations, feelings and memories shattered. When we write honestly and courageously about what’s happened to us, the process of turning that experience into everyday language can help us re-integrate it, ie to make it — and us — whole again. To piece it back together so it makes sense, and we can give it meaning in our lives.

Once accepted and internalised, the trauma can become meaningful, even positive. I know of someone whose traumatic experience — where she feared being killed — has re-framed her whole self-perception and life view. After loving therapy, which included much writing, she now sees herself as a survivor, with a deep appreciation of life.

Like Vice Admiral James Stockdale, the highly decorated US fighter pilot held by the North Vietnamese as a POW for seven and a half years. Tortured 15 times, held in solitary confinement for over four years, in leg irons for two, he transformed his perception of his trauma:

“I never lost faith in the end of the story. I never doubted not only that I would get out, but also that I would prevail in the end and turn the experience into the defining event of my life, which, in retrospect, I would not trade.”

I’m reminded of how the body heals itself. It forms a scab over a cut or graze as outer protection, allowing the deeper healing to take place. Writing can be the scab.

~~~

If you’re struggling with any painful experience and want to write about it, here are some tips:

  • Write by hand. The connection between brain, hand and words is stronger than simply punching plastic keys on a keyboard. (A neurological map of the human body shows that our hands are connected to more neurons than almost any other body part.) So write long-hand with your favourite pen or HB pencil (I know: I need to get out more), rather than type your thoughts on a computer.
  • Don’t over-think it: write spontaneously. Your aim is to get into flow, to allow your thoughts and words to flow out of you onto the page. Judging the ‘quality’ of your writing — especially if you’re hard on yourself — kills fluency. Therapeutic writing is for your eyes only, not anyone else’s. If it helps you, it’s working. And if self-censure comes up for you as an issue, write about it there and then.
  • Write in a quiet place and time. It makes sense to explore your innermost thoughts and feelings in a place and at a time of day when you can be quiet, relaxed and thoughtful. On the tube on the way to work or during a spinning class is probably not a good idea. Many people write their ‘morning pages’ the moment they wake up.
  • Read it out loud. Vocalising what you’ve written in the safety of your own home can be a powerful way either of ‘exorcising’ what they represent, or simply facing them. R.O.L. helps us feel the resonance and power of our words in a way that we may not feel when we hear them in our head.

Scott Keyser, The Writing Guy, helps professional services firms transform their writing culture. He’s also on a mission to improve the life chances of the young and the disadvantaged by showing them how to write with impact.

Scott’s message to the world is that writing is neither a gift nor a black art, but a learnable skill. It’s a life skill that’s not the preserve of the few, but the birthright of all.

You can reach Scott at scott@writeforresults.com.

Write for Results Online is here

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pexels-photo-597331

This autumn I’m launching an online programme, in which the best of my rhetorica® writing techniques will be available to clients for a limited period. The content will take the form of video and/or slide show modules, each no longer than nine minutes. This is nano-byte learning for busy professionals.

I’ll be offering it as a complement to my live workshops, when staff can’t attend due to their location and/or client commitments — when well-intentioned fee-earners are pulled away on a client matter at the last minute. The programme will include a ‘pathfinder’ service, where I recommend which modules to study in which order, based on my analysis of the client’s writing needs. There will also be a series of live calls to help clients apply and embed the new writing behaviours.

I’m giving all my clients the ‘heads-up’ on this before anyone else, with the opportunity to benefit from pre-launch prices. Pls contact me if you’d like to know more.

Nano-byte on Writing

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pexels-photo-267569

We can re-discover our mojo through the written word.

Words express ideas, which can arouse us emotionally, intellectually, spiritually — or leave us cold. If ideas have different levels of energy, so do words.

Generally, formal ‘high register’ words — derived from Latin and Greek — have less energy than shorter, mid-register, plain English words which come originally from the Germanic languages (I’m talking roughly 1500 years ago), eg ‘end’ vs ‘terminate’, ‘buy’ vs ‘purchase’, ‘ask’ vs ‘request’.

This came alive for me the other day.

I was running a writing clinic for some lawyers. One of them had written a turgid blog post on a legal development, full of high falutin’ phrases and verbose expressions. She could barely read it. So I asked her to ‘translate’ it into plain English.

What a contrast! Suddenly the imagery was concrete, vibrant and interesting; the turns of phrase were original and varied; there was even some levity in there. She’d found her voice. The piece was transformed. But so was she.

Her whole demeanour had changed. As she skipped out of the room, her face and body beamed with energy, confidence and joy.

This is why I do the work I do.

The only thing in life that’s rocket science…

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flight-sky-earth-space

The only thing in life that’s rocket science…is rocket science. So writing well is not rocket science.

I posted a video yesterday of me riding bumpily to my next meeting in a bicycle taxi on a sweltering afternoon in London. I was on a high: I’d just helped some lawyers transform their writing in one of my rhetorica® workshops. Not only did their writing improve, but their whole demeanour, energy and body language changed. One of them said they’d re-discovered their mojo through the energy of the words they’d used.

Here are the five things one of the delegates and I did to take what was already an adequate piece of legal advice to an excellent one:

1. Added sub-headings to emphasise the structure, eg showing the reader that the answer to their question was right at the front, not buried in the middle or relegated to the end.

2. Introduced the memo stating that what followed was their legal opinion. This obviated the need to repeat the phrase ‘In our view’ a zillion times.

3. Omitted other needless words and phrases, eg ‘For the avoidance of doubt’: if your writing is clear, this is redundant! eg replaced ‘It is usually the case that…’ with ‘Usually…’

4. Made the language less formal and more ‘human’, eg rather than say ‘elected to sue them’, said ‘chose to sue them’; replaced ‘Furthermore’ with ‘And’ or ‘What’s more’ (you CAN start a sentence with And, by the way, despite what you had drummed into you at school).

5. Removed hackneyed sign-offs, like ‘Please get back to me if you require any further information’ — as if a client wouldn’t do that if they wanted clarification! Cliche’d greetings and sign-offs indicate a lazy and/or unconfident writer.

Like I said — writing is not rocket science. Nor is it a black art or an innate gift. It’s a learnable skill.

PSLs and Associates: how readable is your writing?

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You close your document with a neat turn of phrase, tap the full-stop key with a flourish, lift your hands from the keyboard and sit back smugly.

But how do you know that what you’ve written is clear, concise and readable?

You’ve read it back to yourself over and over, it sounds OK, but you’re so close to it you’re not the best judge. The deadline is looming. You need objective feedback on it and now.

Enter the Readability Statistics.

Developed by Dr Rudolf Flesch — a Viennese Jew who fled to the US from Nazi persecution and became a New York sociologist famed for his work on readability — this is a little-known function in every version of Microsoft® Word, Outlook and Apple. Here’s what it looks like:

readable-writing-readability-statistics

It not only gives you standard stuff like word and character count; it also gives you four helpful numbers:

ASL (Average Sentence Length) In the middle (‘Averages’) section, your ‘Words per Sentence’ is the average number of words per sentence, or ASL.Your ASL heavily influences readability, as long sentences contain more ideas and demand more processing power than short ones. (Technique #20 in my book rhetorica® — a toolkit of 21 everyday writing techniques shows you some easy ways to shorten your sentences.)Your ASL target: 15-20 words.
Passive Sentences In the lower (‘Readability’) section, ‘Passive Sentences’ is the proportion of sentences in the passive voice.Passivitis is a chronic affliction. Writing in the passive voice is longer, less direct and less vigorous than the active voice. The clue’s in the name.Your ‘Passive Sentences’ target: as close to 0% as possible.
Flesch Reading Ease (FRE) score In the same section of the stats, your FRE scores the readability of your text as a percentage, so the higher the better.Dr Flesch used two measures of readability: the average number of words per sentence and average number of syllables per word. In his system, plain English starts at 60% FRE. Authors of technical documents rarely reach those dizzy heights, because technical jargon tends to be polysyllabic, depressing readability. But we should be able to score 45-50% FRE by offsetting techie text with simple supporting language.Your FRE target: at least 45%.
Flesch-Kincaid Grade Level This is functional reading age as measured by the US grade school system, i.e. the minimum amount of American education required to understand a piece of writing.To convert Flesch-Kincaid Grade Level into age, add five, i.e. a grade level of 5.0 is roughly an American ten-year old. This means that, at a minimum, an American ten-year old could understand your text. It doesn’t mean you’re targeting that age group!No target for this one, but most of my corporate clients set a Flesch-Kincaid Grade Level for their external communications of 10–11. (Recently tested articles from The Economist scored an average Flesch-Kincaid level of 10.3 to 10.8, exploding the myth that The Economist is high-brow and only for college graduates.)

Word of warning: the stats work best on fully punctuated body copy of at least 200 words; they don’t work well on titles, headlines, sub-headings, bullet points and captions. If your document has lots of these, save it as a text-only file and run the stats on that for a truer score.

To find out how to activate the Stats and score your next piece of writing, click here to see the article. And while you’re at it, you might want to download your free rhetorica® chapters

The bottom-line

Assessing a piece of writing — whether yours or someone else’s — can be subjective; the red pen is never far away. But the readability stats make assessment a tad more objective: they show you what is going on with the mechanics of the text. So if you’re defending your word-choice to a fee-earner or giving a junior staff member feedback on their writing, you can now do so with evidence and authority. (And if your version turns out to be more readable than your boss’s, you face an interesting dilemma…)

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If you’d like to go to the heart of the matter and download three chapters of my book, rhetorica® — a toolkit of 21 everyday writing techniques, here’s the link: Download your free rhetorica® chapters

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Scott Keyser runs Write for Results, a communications and business development consultancy. Write for Results works with professionals who perform technically complex work (eg lawyers, accountants, engineers), but who sometimes struggle to communicate the value of that work to their market in an engaging way. Scott and his team simply show them how to make their comms — including their bids, tenders, pitches and proposals — clear, concise and compelling.

To book a slot to speak to Scott about your or your team’s writing, click here: http://bit.ly/2f5o6di