Write Like a Second Grader

At School We LearnHow do second graders write? They use small words and short sentences. Writers who want their writing read and understood should do the same. In fact, one of the simplest ways to make your writing more understandable is to use small words and short sentences. Notice I said simplest, not easiest.

Especially for writers in the business world, using multi-syllable buzz words like leverage, synergy, and multifunctional and long, complex sentences seem to be a kind of safety blanket. Perhaps using big words and long sentences make people who are unsure of their writing ability feel professional. It may make them feel professional, but it makes their readers feel sleepy.

The purpose of writing is to convey information. In fiction writing the information conveyed creates a story in the reader’s mind. In non-fiction writing the information is meant to inform, persuade, or give direction. But if readers don’t read or understand the information, the information is lost like smoke signals in a storm.

One of the most basic of business writing skills is to exchange impressive yet ambiguous buzz words for common, well-understood words and chop long, complex sentences into shorter, simpler sentences. Writing short sentences improves communication in these three ways: improved reader engagement, increased reader comprehension, and prolonged reader interest.

Engage Readers

Hello. Take my hand and follow me. One of the simplest writing techniques to arouse interest is to start with one or more short sentences. This technique is especially popular with copywriters. If advertising and other copywriting doesn’t immediately capture the reader’s interest, the reader won’t read past the first sentence. Engaging the reader is so important, copywriting guru Joseph Sugerman said that was the first sentence’s only purpose: to get the reader to read the second sentence. In fact the only purpose of the lead paragraph (sometimes called the lede within the journalism industry) is to get the reader on a “slippery slope” that carries them through the rest of the copy and ends with some kind of call to action.

Increase Reader Comprehension

Do you want readers to understand your writing? Unless you’re a spy or writing a very private diary, I assume the answer is yes. If so using short sentences will help you to more clearly convey your intended meaning to your readers.

A short, simple sentence is big enough to clearly communicate only one idea. Compound sentences, with multiple subjects and predicates, and complex sentences, with one or more subordinate clauses, are information rich, and they require readers to expend extra effort to parse out the ideas and make sense of them.

Want an example? Compare the two sentences in the preceding paragraph. The first sentence was easy to understand. In the second sentence, however, I bet you slowed down and had to think about the information a bit before it made sense.

Adding more information to a sentence increases its word length and information density. As the length and density go up, so does the effort required from the reader to pick apart the information and understand how the ideas within the sentence relate to each other and the surrounding sentences.

Keep Readers Engaged

Don’t only use short sentences. Unless you’re writing for young children. It’s choppy. It creates impatience. It insults your readers, so don’t do it. (Previous sentences written for illustrative purpose only; no insult intended.) Once you’ve gotten your reader’s attention, keep that attention focused on what you’re communicating. Don’t let that attention wander to the style and techniques used to put the words together. Wandering attention leads to confusion which leads to your reader leaving. Good writing–business writing, anyway–doesn’t call attention to itself.

One of the easiest ways to keep readers engaged is to vary the length of sentences you write. Using a mixture of short and long sentences creates a nice variation in rhythm. Using only short sentences creates a staccato hammering on the reader’s inner ear. At the other extreme, using only long sentences exhausts the reader as he or she struggles to understand the sentence as described above. It also creates the monotonous sound of the high school teacher who put everyone to sleep. Short sentences punctuate meaning with bursts of clarity and give readers’ comprehension a chance to catch up.

In Summary

If you’ve been worried that using short sentences makes your writing look unprofessional or juvenile, I hope I’ve laid those fears to rest. Using short sentences helps you capture your readers’ attention, and a mixture of short and long sentences helps keep readers interested in your content. Using short sentences is also an excellent way to clearly convey key information. Using short sentences improves communication. Isn’t that a big part of being professional?

As Writing Jim, Jim Driggers provides copywriting and business process writing to owners of small and medium-sized businesses. His clients gain sales through marketing text that better resonates with their customers, and they save money when their employees follow guides rather than impulses. His clients give themselves the time to focus on what they do well when they leave their writing to Writing Jim.

For copywriting help with your print or online content or for help systematizing your business processes, contact Writing Jim at [email protected] or 925-231-5825. Visit www.writingjim.com for more information.

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