• Orit Wittenberg

Convert more users by keepin' it simple

Basic grammar and vocab sell. Revisit some fundamentals you learned in third grade, with a marketing twist.


By the end of this post, you'll know:


✔️ How to lay out your piece so people want to read it

✔️ What average grade level your readers best respond to

✔️ Which words and phrases to avoid

✔️ What the ideal length is for a blog post



Plain language – it's your right!


Did you know that in the United States, clear government communication is more than a good practice. It's actually the law?


The Plain Writing Act signed in 2010 requires federal agencies to use language that is simple, clear, and easy to understand.


Why?


Because understandable government communication is every American citizen's right.


Plus, hiding behind obscure terms is so passé.

For each version, how long does it take you to figure out who can benefit from this program? (Plainlanguage.gov)



LAYOUT: Make formatting your friend


The fact that readers respond best to texts they can understand is a no-brainer. But what does that mean on the ground (or screen)?

In the digital age, readers are busy. They will read, as long as what you're writing is compelling.


(In fact, research shows that people read long blog posts more closely than short ones. But more on that a little later.)

Your job is to make it easy for them.


Before you think about the what of your text, think about the how.


Writing looks inviting when it's airy and spacious. So, make generous use of:

✔️ lists

✔️ white space

✔️ headings

✔️ subheadings

✔️ short paragraphs

✔️ varied sentence length

✔️ visuals

✔️ bold & italics


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The fact that readers respond best to texts they can understand is a no-brainer. But what does that mean on the ground (or screen)? In the digital age, readers are busy. They will read, as long as what you're writing is compelling and engaging. (In fact, research shows that people read long blog posts more closely than short ones. But more on that a little later.) Your job is to make it easy for them. Before you think about the what of your text, think about the how. Writing looks inviting when it's airy and spacious. Makes generous use of lists, white space, headings, subheadings, short paragraphs, varied sentence length, visuals, bold & italics.

**********************


See what I mean?


VOCABULARY: Write like you talk


It's tempting to stick in big words to flaunt your sagacity and loquacious panache.


While tempting, it's almost never a good idea, unless your readers are angry cavemen waiting to attack.


Big words are a great way to scare away your enemies.


Whenever possible, choose words that your reader doesn't need a dictionary to decode.


Instead of:

✖️ utilize ✔️ say use

✖️ attain ✔️ say get

✖️ ascertain ✔️ say figure out

✖️ locate ✔️ say find

✖️ accomplish ✔️ say do

✖️ expend ✔️ say spend

✖️ operate ✔️ say run

✖️ accordingly ✔️ say so


Copywriter Laura Belgray , self-proclaimed mastermind behind "the only emails anyone reads anymore," swears by her EFAB (Email From A Bestie) approach.


She talks about staying away from Subject Lines in Title Case and using stiff, formal greetings and signoffs like "Dear," "Hello," and "Sincerely."


When you write stiff, people ignore.


When you write like you speak, people read.



STRUCTURE: 2 Rules for structuring your sentences right


You're now ready to craft your sentences. Excellent.


Keep these 2 rules* close to your heart, and your hand (*term used loosely):


1. Use active voice.


✖️ "When passive voice is used, sentences are rendered unclear."


✔️ "Use active voice to ensure clarity."


EXCEPTION: Those rare times when passive voice is the quickest and clearest way to say something. E.g. 'Everyone was sent home.' The end.


2. Stick to one idea per sentence.


✖️ "The instant portable shrinker is so small it fits in the palm of your hand and comes in handy if you're late for work and need to slip into your office unnoticed, past the nosy secretary and right by your boss."


IDEAS PER SENTENCE = 6


✔️ "The instant portable shrinker fits in the palm of your hand. It comes in handy when you need to slip into your office unnoticed (past the nosy secretary and your boss)."


IDEAS PER SENTENCE = 1



GRADE LEVEL: Err on the side of simplicity


Many best practice this-n-thats will advise you to stick to a 5th-8th grade reading level in terms of vocabulary, grammar, sentence length, and structure.


This doesn't mean dumbing your content down. It means communicating concisely.


For example, take Ernest Hemingway himself. If you run his work through the app named for him, it comes in at a 5th grade level. And no one would dare call his writing unintelligent. At least, they'd better not...


Similarly, a 2015 article from the Boston Globe points out that presidential candidates with simpler English resonate better with US voters.

Lowest grade level for the win!


All that said, there is no one right answer to the grade level question. So much depends on context, subject, and audience. Where appropriate, a 12th grade level is just dandy.


Here's the way I like to think about it: When in doubt, err on the side of simplicity.


Anyway, you'll usually find you're writing at about the average 5th-8th grade level without even trying.


*QUIZ: Guess this post's grade level. Answer at the end!



POST LENGTH: Shorter isn't always better


There's a lot of research around the ideal length for online articles or blog posts.


While they don't all agree, a convincing article from Medium found that the average total seconds spent reading "rises for longer posts, peaks at 7 minutes, and then declines."


(FYI a 7-minute read is approximately 1,600 words.)


While the average reader spends most time on the 7-minute posts, the very long posts performed best and worst overall.

As an interesting side note, the most engaging posts in this graph were not the 7-minute posts.


It was only the long, 14-19-minute posts that had visitors staying on the page (and presumably reading) for 540 seconds (9 whole minutes).


There are 2 take-homes here about post length:


1. Don't be afraid to write a long post.


2. Don't be afraid to write a short post.


If that's not helpful, how about this: People will read what you write, AS LONG AS it's engaging.



CONCLUSION: Keep it simple


Whether you're growing your business through content marketing, writing your own website copy, or creating engaging social posts, remember to keep it simple.


#GoSimpleOrGoHome


*ANSWER TO THE QUIZ: This post comes in at a 5th grade level.