Can you give a reader a hand? 3 tips that make it easier for your reader

by kriggins on November 21, 2008

in Writing

Are you wearing your readers out?

Are you making it hard for us to read what you have to say?

Are you making it hard for us to understand what you are trying to tell us?

Last week I attended a class called "Customer-Focused Writing." Don't go away yet. Customer in this case means whoever is reading your writings. It was presented by Ben Shank of Writing Consultants, Inc. The class was great and I learned quite a few things.  I'd like to share three of them with you.

  1. Keep your sentences short.
  2. Keep your paragraphs short.
  3. Keep your words short.

There, go forth and capture readers!

Heh. Okay. I have a little more to say about each tip.

Before we start I would like to mention what kinds of writing I am talking about. Every kind . Emails, memos, letters, long reports, and blog posts.  They all can benefit from these three suggestions.

Keep your sentences short.

There have been many studies done on sentence length. A quick Google search for "sentence length" will return many opinions on the subject. Some of them about prison sentence length, but we're not going to get into that.

What is the idea that keeps turning up? You got it. Keep your sentences short. Sentences of 15-20 words are easier to read. Over 25 words and we often just give up.

Short sentences keep your reader moving.  We don't have to keep re-reading everything to get the thought or idea you are trying to get across. Short sentences also help establish a pace. Think about books that you have read quickly. I bet they didn't have huge sentences in them.

Keep your paragraphs short.

If keeping sentences short helps capture a readers attention, what do you think long paragraphs will do? Scare em' half to death more than likely. What is short? Five to six lines. Since taking the class, I have been paying close attention to my reading habits. Let me tell you what I have noticed.

I am less likely to want to read a piece that is one huge paragraph. As advertisers and marketing folks have said for years, white space is important. Frequent breaks as we read let us digest the information being presented.

Pay attention over the next few days.  Watch for large paragraphs and see if you prefer them to shorter ones.

Keep your words short.

We have a theme going here, don't we? Why use the word 'utilize' when 'use' works just fine. Why stick a bunch of five syllable words in your writing when they are often not needed.

Some will say, "I do a lot of technical writing. I have to write long sentences and use long words." In most cases, you don't. Sometimes you do. Sometimes the only word that will work is a long one. Go ahead and use it. But, only if you really need to.

Leave the monster vocabulary at home unless your goal is to show how many big words you know. Your reader doesn't really care. They just want the information you are trying to give to them. Don't make them pull out the dictionary just to read your stuff.

A few bonus tips.

Good titles are vital. They are what first grabs your readers attention.

Good opening are even more vital. They keep the writers attention. In a lot of cases, the opening is the only part that will get read. If you really want them to know something, get it in there early.

Finally, good closings are vital.  They help cement what you are trying to say in your readers mind.

Use short words, write short sentences and keep your paragraphs short too. I promise you that your readers will appreciate it.


PS - If you want to contact Writing Consultants, here is their email address mail (at) writeconsult (dot) net. I have no affiliation with them other than being a satisfied student.

{ 4 comments… read them below or add one }

Anonym November 25, 2008 at 12:07 pm

Is this like the April 1st-type advice? Clearly, these tips are about writing for rejectees from “Are you smarter than a 5th grader?”…. Come on!


kriggins November 25, 2008 at 2:06 pm

The previous commenter chose to comment anonymously, so they are not going to receive this reply. However, the point he brings up is worth addressing.

Writing in a clear, concise, and easy to read and understand manner is not a statement on the intelligence of the reader. It’s about not making something more complicated that it needs to be. It’s about making it ease for the reader to read and internalize.

Can readers understand long sentences? Of course they can, but are they willing too? Can I banish white space? Sure. Again, is that in your reader’s best interest? Can I use my encyclopedic vocabulary? Yup. But “big words” would have worked in the last question just as well.

Shorter sentences, shorter paragraphs, and common language do not mean dumbing down your writing. It means making your reader work less to get at the nuggets of information you are trying to share.



floor jack March 14, 2009 at 6:40 am

I have to say, that I could not agree with you in 100%, but it’s just my opinion, which could be very wrong.
p.s. You have an awesome template for your blog. Where did you find it?


kriggins March 14, 2009 at 6:47 am

Thanks for the feedback.

The theme I use is called k2. You can find it here:

I really like it because of the flexibility it gives you. It is more of a framework although it works just fine as a theme.



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