Two Things Readers Hate

Posted: June 15, 2010 in General Writing Tips

Readers hate two things: slowing down, and backing up to re-read. If my prose forces a reader to do those, my prose has failed.

Did your English teacher convince you that your goal is to write grammatically correct sentences? Not good enough. That can still produce writing that sucks… such as this true example, encountered while doing my day job for ICANN:

Since the GNSO’s new gTLD policy recommendations that were approved by the Board did not specify how to protect trademarks in new gTLDs, ICANN Staff has published a series of memoranda and proposals describing solutions for several new trademark protection mechanisms based on recommendations from the Implementation Recommendation Team (IRT) and public comments.

Technically, this sentence passes muster. (At ICANN, you have to accept the acronyms as given.) But at a whopping 53 words, it’s just a lot to hold in your head. By the time I get to “Implementation,” I’m going, “Wait…who did what?”

This paragraph has lots of style problems, ranging from passive voice to words that don’t pull their weight (how is “memoranda and proposals” clearer than simply “proposals”?) But I’ll suggest a simple fix. Using the writer’s most helpful punctuation mark, the period, makes the exact same information more readable:

The GNSO’s new gTLD policy recommendations were approved by the Board, but did not specify how to protect trademarks in new gTLDs. Thus, ICANN Staff has published a series of memoranda and proposals describing solutions for several new trademark protection mechanisms. The Staff based their work on recommendations from the Implementation Recommendation Team (IRT) and on public comments.

Periods: the world’s most renewable resource. They’re free. So why not use them?

The second version is actually longer than the first – but it reads more easily. And that’s my point: beyond grammar, beyond word count, we must care about what our readers experience when they drag their eyes over our words.

Journalists have learned that readers dig short sentences. If you really want to pull people through your piece, shoot for an average sentence length of 15 words. If you can, go even shorter. Like this. See?

Another advantage of short sentences: you won’t misplace clauses, as in this real example, also  from work:

Step Two: A review of the results of Step One would be commissioned by an expert in the construction of public participation mechanisms in other policy development environments would be commissioned.

If you want to rock your reader’s world, you must help them focus on your meaning and enjoy the ride. When they have to drop from fifth gear into first just to navigate your tortured sentences, you turn their party cruise into a stop-and-start garbage route. Correct grammar isn’t good enough. Your goal is readability. Write a funnel that slides readers seamlessly toward your point.

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Comments
  1. Steve Pinzon says:

    Good stuff! (nice short sentence, ‘eh?)

    • Lisa says:

      It’s morning. I’ve had one coffee. How should Step 2 be rewritten? It seems the commission information has been unnecessarily repeated, but as I’m not familiar with the subject matter….show me Master!

      • Scott Pinzon says:

        The author, wrapped up in his or her clauses, repeated “would be commissioned” twice in one sentence. It’s also in passive voice. I would have suggested: “Step Two. An expert in the construction of public participation mechanisms would commission a review of Step One.”

  2. Lisa says:

    What a strange feeling: something written in such a convoluted manner I couldn’t see how to fix. Thanks. I’m working to eradicate my passive voice.

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