Say What You Mean

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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.

You can find the book on Amazon.com

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10 thoughts on “Say What You Mean”

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  2. There is a problem in one of his books!

    He uses a description of what a pawn can do in the game of chess as an example of overly complicated writing. His suggested revised wording omits a critical pawn move (en passant), which is, perhaps, the hardest to explain.

    In the 1970s I was in a position where I sometimes had to explain complicated (engineering) proposals to the public. I also had to deal with reporters who, apparently having read one or another of Flesch’s books, liked to make what I said “easier” to read. I had to tell them (a) simpler is not necessarily correct, and (b) please don’t put quotes on it if that is not what I said.

    I was able to use Flesch’s revised chess rule as the perfect example of a good intention gone astray.

  3. Anything worth saying is worth saying well–and this generally means that your reader/listener can easily understand what you are trying to communicate–with as little effort as possible.

  4. As a follow up:

    Often when we are working on a particularly confusing or complicated text, we will ask the author, “What are you trying to say here?” The author will say what he or she intends to communicate. We then delete the original text and write, instead, what the author has said. In this way, we replace the complicated with the simple.

    One important role that we play as professional editors is helping authors figure out what they are trying to say–and then say it. In this way, we help writers follow this excellent advice: Say what you mean.

  5. I am a teacher of English.
    what is the best way to teach writing articles to my students????????????????????????????????????????????

  6. Michael, I’m smiling at the irony in your article. You wrote “Sentences like those appear all too rarely in business and government writing, and Flesch said there is no good reason why they shouldn’t.” This is a sentence that strikes me as unclear gobbledegook, itself! Would it not be better to say “Sentences like those appear all too rarely in business and government writing, and Flesch said there is no good reason for that.” After all, didn’t your sentence state, in effect, that ‘these things are rare and they should be rare’?

    Just stirring up the hornets, folks. (grin)

  7. You’re right, except what I wrote was a completely different sort of unclear gobbledegook. It was colloquial gobbledegook, not official gobbledegook. Flesch might have been sympathetic with my attempt.

    But I’m not sure that your version is quite clear enough either. How about, “Flesch saw no good reason why friendly sentences should appear so rarely in business and government writing.”

  8. When I was a training specialist in General Motors Corporation, we used Flesch’s book, “Say What You Mean” as the basis for teaching effective business writing. Each participant received a copy. I wish I could find my leaders guide and text.

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