Say What You Mean
One of the most influential teachers of writing was Rudolf Flesch. I encountered him through an out-of-print book called On Business Communications, formerly titled Say What You Mean. Only later did I discover that he also wrote the 1955 educational critique Why Johnny Can’t Read. His other titles include The Art of Plain Talk, The Art of Readable Writing, How to Write Better… you get the idea. Flesch practiced what he preached: everything I’ve read by him was superbly readable, even entertaining.
Throughout most of On Business Communications, Flesch fights a battle against business and government communication that is formal for its own sake, neglecting the very purpose of communication, which is to say something. We all tend to write the way we think we’re expected to write, instead of pondering the best way to meet our reader’s needs. Flesch fought the common belief that official writing must be boring or stuffy, or else nobody will respect it. The documents of the U.S. Social Security Administration became a little easier to read after they hired Rudolf Flesch as a consultant.
Flesch was a pioneer of readability testing. His simple Flesch–Kincaid Readability Tests are still used by educators to assign appropriate grade levels to reading material. The more syllables in a word, the more words in a sentence, the more difficult an article is to read. You can test the readability of any web page against Flesch’s formula at Juicy Studio.
But readability goes beyond mathematical calculations. How a reader feels about an article influences whether he or she will understand it or even finish reading it. When people open a new book or magazine, they may subconsciously scan it to see if it’s “reader-friendly.” Do they see lots of periods? That means short sentences. Lots of white space? That may mean short paragraphs. Do they see exclamation points and question marks? That means that it isn’t straight, routine exposition.
A potential reader may subconsciously look for personal pronouns. That actually increases readability, because it suggests that the author is writing about people, and people are interesting. Does the book or article contain vocabulary that you wouldn’t expect to see, such as the word “puppy” in a chemistry article? That suggests that it contains metaphors and analogies, which are easier to understand, and not just chemical formulas. Does it contain specific nouns at all? Seeing the word “Weimaraner” in an article gives me more hope of an interesting read than “dog” or “animal.”
Flesch taught the importance of personality and personal connection in writing. A reader is not merely a customer, he or she is a human being like yourself, looking for reassurance and connection. We all want to hear, “I’m sorry about that,” “I know what you mean,” “I found the answer to your question,” “I solved your problem,” and “Thank you so much!” Sentences like those appear all too rarely in business and government writing, and Flesch said there is no good reason why they shouldn’t.
Flesch had a special gift for helping to simplify legal language – and there’s a special reason for that. In one instance, he condensed a paragraph of gobbledy-gook into something like, “These people have owed you $10,000 for two months. If they don’t pay by next month, I think you should sue.” Many clients might worry whether writing so simple can still be legally binding. Not to worry. Before he came to the United States, Rudolf Flesch was a lawyer in Vienna.
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