The Best Way to Get and Keep More Readers

When I was in graduate school, I noticed that most of my fellow grad students, and our professors, loved to use big words and long sentences.

They tried to use the most complex words and sentences as possible in their scholarly works. Paragraphs were measured in linear feet, not number of words. And it was not unheard of to spend 12 – 15 hours writing a simple 10 page paper.

Not me, of course. I had cut my writing teeth at my college newspaper, so I wrote like a journalist: short words, short sentences, short paragraphs. (Something that would send my 7th grade English teacher screaming from the room.)

I constantly got easy A’s on my papers, while the other students were getting B’s and hard-won A’s, and spending a lot more time on their work than I did.

It never occurred to anyone in the department that it was how I wrote that made the difference, not the quality of my ideas or the way I expressed them. I didn’t even stumble on this little revelation myself until many years later.

What I learned was, if you want to be read, write simply. Don’t be flowery or use $50 words. Write at an 8th grade reading level, or possibly even a 6th. That’s where most newspapers are written these days. TV news copy is written at the 4th grade level.

The American Marketing Association even backs me up on this.

In January 2008, authors G. Alan Sawyer, Juliano Laran, & Jun Xu published the study, The Readability of Marketing Journals: Are Award-Winning Articles Better Written?

In a word, yes.

Basically, they wanted to see if award-winning journal articles were written more simply than the non-winners (we call them “losers” outside the academic walls). They ran the text through Microsoft Word’s Flesch-Kincaid Reading Level grader, and did a whole bunch of complicated stuff with statistics that I won’t even pretend to understand.

The Reading Level score corresponds to the grade of education of the reader it would take to understand it. If your score is 8.4, it’s suitable for an 8th grader. A 14.6 is suitable for a college sophomore. A score of 21 or higher is suitable for Stephen Hawking, although he may find it a little pedestrian.

Here’s what they found:

Of the 15 articles with the best readability scores, 13 of them were award winners. They had scores from 12.3 to 14.4. Of the 11 worst least readable articles, 9 of them were “non-winners,” and carried scores from 18.3 to 21.3.

(Their own article has a 13.98 Flesch-Kincaid score. This post has a 6.7. I guess I win.)

So why is a lower reading score so important? Are we getting dumber? Do we all have the attention span of a bunch of hyperactive 12-year-olds?

No, the reason is our mental bandwidth. Let’s face it, we’re all busy, harried, and are running eight things through our brains at once. And that’s on a good day. When we’re confronted with a piece of text, we want it to be as simple as possible.

Simple doesn’t mean we’re stupid, or that our brains are shutting down. It means we don’t have to devote as much time and energy to it. We can process the text easily, absorb the information, and move on. We can absolutely read something that’s long and complex. We’re all smart people, and we can certainly read something written at a 12th grade reading level. It’s just that people sometimes need the break from the long and complex. Simple writing gives that to them, and as a result, is more readily accepted.

Basically, if you want to win readers, stick with the writing style the newspapers use. Short words, short sentences, short paragraphs. Most important information goes up front, least important goes last. Avoid needless words.

Otherwise, your readers will eventually get bored and go elsewhere.

(Note: If you’re a Mac user, and don’t have access to Word’s Flesch-Kincaid grader, you can download Flesh, the document readability calculator. I used it to grade this post.)

Photo: Peyri

Five Punctuation Errors Exploded

We had such great success with our Five Grammar Myths Exploded post, and I’m such an attention whore, that I wanted to follow up with Five Punctuation Errors Exploded. Plus, I’m a bit of a Word Nerd and Punctuation Prude (but not a Grammar Granny), that I wanted to talk about a few of the punctuation errors I see people make over and over.

Unfortunately, a lot of these errors are perpetuated by Microsoft Word’s Grammar Checker. Others are perpetuated by English and writing teachers who are still teaching the same errors they learned when they were writing their lessons on slate tablets. And still others are inexplicable. No one knows why they do it, but they do it.

Here are the five most common ones I’ve seen.

1. Don’t use apostrophes for anything but possessive pluralization: This one sets my teeth on edge, more than any other. An apostrophe is absolutely, positively, without exception used to show possessive or contractions. It is never, ever, ever used to show plurals.

With one exception. (More on that in a minute.)

First, don’t write things like DVD’s, CDs, CEO’s, 1990’s, or any abbreviation or acronym. The proper pluralization is DVDs, CDs, CEOs, and 1990s. No question.

The one exception is if you are pluralizing a single letter. The Oakland A’s, five Model T’s.

So the rule for apostrophes is just to leave it out for plurals, unless you’re pluralizing a single letter.

(Update: More than a few people pointed out that apostrophes are also used for contractions, which I knew, but forgot to mention. Thanks for the reminder, everyone.)

2. I give a f— about the Oxford comma: This one is actually optional, but I love the Oxford Comma. So if you were to ask me the first line of the Oxford Comma song by Vampire Weekend, the answer is “I do!”

The Oxford comma — also called the Harvard comma or Serial comma — is the comma that appears before “and” in a list. Red, white, and blue. Moe, Larry, and Curly. That comma there before “and” is the Oxford comma.

There are some writing styles that forbid it, like AP Style. Others allow it, like MLA and APA.

The problem is some Oxford comma-haters will remove it as a knee jerk reaction. See an Oxford comma, yank it out. That leads to problems, like the famous example of the book author who wrote in his dedication, “To my parents, the Pope and Mother Teresa.” Or the gay church in Dallas that has “3,500 members, a full choir, a violinist and long-stemmed roses in the bathroom.”

Punctuation is designed to make language more readable and understandable. And sometimes removing a comma just because you’re “supposed to” can make the problem worse.

Bottom line: Using the Oxford comma isn’t wrong. It’s strictly a style issue.

3. Hyphens are dying: Some people say the hyphen is old-fashioned. Others would say it’s old fashioned. Either way, the hyphen is falling out of favor with most grammarians and editors. In fact, the sixth edition of the Shorter Oxford English Dictionary, editors removed hyphens from 16,000 entries. An article in the BBC said words like fig-leaf, pot-belly, and pigeon-hole are now fig leaf, pot belly, and pigeonhole.

The Online Writing Lab (OWL) at Purdue is very thorough on the subject of hyphens. They have eight examples of when it should be used. The three most important are:

  • Use a hyphen to join two or more words serving as a single adjective before a noun:

a one-way street
chocolate-covered peanuts
well-known author

  • However, when compound modifiers come after a noun, they are not hyphenated:

The peanuts were chocolate covered.
The author was well known.

  • Use a hyphen to avoid confusion or an awkward combination of letters:

re-sign a petition (vs. resign from a job)
semi-independent (but semiconscious)
shell-like (but childlike)

Unfortunately, there’s no one rule that will explain all hyphens. If you’re not sure what to do, check Purdue’s OWL.

4. Proper use of the en (–) and em (—) dash: I love dashes. More powerful than commas, but not as sentence-stopping as a period. An em dash — which is the really long dash; so called because it’s the approximate width of the letter m — is used to separate parenthetical thoughts in your writing.

The en dash — it’s the approximate width of the letter n — is used to show a range between numbers.

I will be in Orlando, Florida from January 21 – 28.
Admission is $3 for ages 4 – 12.

Create the em dash with SHIFT+OPT+hyphen (Mac)/CTRL+ALT+hyphen (Windows). Create the en dash with OPT+hyphen (Mac)/ALT+hyphen (Windows). You can also turn on “Create em dash” in Word; anytime you type a double dash (–), Word will replace it with an em dash.

The other question I see a lot is whether to put a space between the em dash and a word. There doesn’t seem to be any consensus on whether to do it or not. The Chicago Manual of Style says there shouldn’t be any spaces—like this—between dashes and text. But the AP Stylebook — which is correct in all things except my beloved Oxford comma — says it’s okay to have a space between dashes and text (like I just did there).

The basic rule is the em dash is used in text, the en dash is used to show a range between numbers.

5. Punctuation always goes inside quotation marks: This is a simple one, but one that people don’t always understand. Basically, all punctuation goes inside quotation marks when you’re writing a quote.

“Where are you going?” she asked.
“None of your business!” he said.
“Jeez, you’re always such a jerk,” she said.

The punctuation in the last example is the one that usually trips people up. The entire sentence actually ends with “she said,” which is why the period goes at the very end. The actual quote — Jeez, you’re always such a jerk — ends with a comma, which goes inside the quote.

Now, if she says something else afterward, that’s actually a separate sentence, and doesn’t need a “she said” to go with it.

“Jeez, you’re always such a jerk,” she said. “I don’t know why I married you in the first place.”

Even other quotation marks will go inside the final quotation mark.

“And then I said, ‘that sounds like a load of BS!'” he shouted over the music.

Notice the use of the single quotation mark around ‘that sounds like a load of BS!’ That’s how you show you’re quoting something within another quote. But then if you look very closely at the end of the example, you’ll see the single quote and the double quote mashed together. It’s a little sloppy and hard to see, but that’s just how it is.

Bottom line: All punctuation goes inside a quotation mark, including other quotation marks.

(Special thanks to Bil Browning of the Bilerico Project for recommending this final item for the list.)

What about you? What are some of your punctuation pet peeves? What bugs you, or what do you struggle with? Leave a comment, and we’ll do a followup post.

Apostrophe photo: Melita Dennett
Comma photo: Leo Reynolds

The Two Most Important Ways to Tap Into a Buyer’s Motivation

Why do people buy? When you boil it down, there are two reasons why people buy anything.

Fear and Greed. Loss or gain.

In fact, when you look at the Seven Deadly Sins (Greed, Lust, Gluttony, Sloth, Wrath, Envy, and Pride), Greed isn’t just one of them, it’s the foundation of for most of them: Gluttony, Pride, Lust, and Envy are all greed-based sins. Gluttony is greed of food, Lust is greed of sex, Envy is greed of possessions, and so on.

We see ads for nice cars, nice clothes, good food, expensive watches. We’re told, you need these, you deserve these, people will like you if you have them. You’ll be successful and rich, and able to afford more things like this. We Envy the people who have them, and we are Greedy to have them ourselves.

Even the ads that sell through sex tap into this mindset: if you have/eat/drink this product, hot women will want to have sex with you. And sex — Lust — is one of the most primal Greed urges we’ve got.

Fear is the other driving force. We buy locks because we fear losing what we have (which is fear driven by greed, so it’s a double whammy). We buy safe cars and SUVs because we fear being injured in a crash.

One day, I was flipping through a parenting magazine and saw that every single ad was fear based:

  • Buy this baby monitor so you can hear if your child stops breathing.
  • Buy this car seat so your baby won’t be hurt in a car accident.
  • Buy this sleeping trough so your baby stays on his back and doesn’t die.

It was actually kind of depressing, because all these new mothers were being bombarded, not with just advertising, but frightening thoughts that their tiny new life could be extinguished at the snap of Fate’s fingers. I remember what it was like the first time I was a dad, and I was able to conjure up all these scary images without the help of advertisers. So I can only imagine what it’s like for new mothers to see this, page after page, ad after ad.

As a writer, this is important to know. This is, deep down in the places we don’t talk about, how your customers think. They buy so they can have more of something or prevent the loss of something else. You need to write your copy in a way that draws water from one of these two wells.

Look at your product or service, and figure out why someone would want to buy it. Let’s say you sell synthetic motor oil. It’s fairly expensive compared to regular motor oil, but it lasts longer than regular motor oil. You could write your copy in one of two ways:

    • Greed: If you use this motor, you won’t need to change your oil as frequently. Instead of getting your oil changed every 3,000 miles, you change it every 6,000 miles. Instead of spending $250 per year, you’ll only spend $125 per year, which means you’ll put $125 back in your own pocket.

Greed (Envy/Pride): Drivers who love their fancy, expensive cars put synthetic motor oil into them. If you want people to think your car is just as good as these expensive cars here, you’ll put our oil into your car too.

  • Fear: Synthetic motor oil last longer and works better than regular motor oil. Cheap motor oils break down more quickly, and results in more wear and tear on your engine. The more wear and tear, the sooner your car will break down. This can result in a very expensive repair, or even an entire engine replacement, which will cost at least $3,000. By using synthetic oil, you’ll save your engine and protect your car from costly repairs.

Unfortunately, appealing to people’s nobler efforts — it’s good for the environment — isn’t the most effective way to get people to buy. They’re not thinking that way. If you ask Prius owners why they bought their car, and most of them will tell you it’s because of gas prices. A very few people will cite the environment as their number 1 reason for buying it. Otherwise, hybrid cars would have been overwhelmingly popular five years ago, and not just a growing trend.

Instead, people bought the Prius because they were afraid gas prices would be very expensive and they didn’t want to pay too much for their gas (Greed and Fear. Double score!) Even today, gas prices and fuel economy are still the number 1 reason for the hybrid’s success. (And just so I don’t sound completely cynical, I will agree that “it’s good for the environment” is a very good reason to buy a hybrid, and probably in the top 3 for most Prius owners.)

So as you write your web copy, see if you can tap into the fear or the greed mindset, even a little, and see if your response rates don’t go up.

If you do, you could become fabulously wealthy. If you don’t, bad things may happen to you.