Monday, September 24, 2018

The Art Of Readable Writing

“The more you know about the kind of person you are writing for, the better you’ll write,” says Rudolf Flesch, the author of The Art of Readable Writing.  The book was published in 1949 and still holds value for today’s writer – nearly 70 years later.

I found this gem at a used bookstore while recently visiting California.

“Readability,” he writes, “means ease of reading plus interest.  They want to make as little effort as possible while they are reading, and they also want something “built in” that will automatically carry them forward like an escalator.”

The author, who also penned The Art of Plain Talk, shows how writers can connect better with their readers.  Here are several excerpts that you may find of interest:

1.      Then, of course, there’s always the difference between the sexes.  You know all about that, but a little reminder will do you good next time you write a piece for women (if you’re male) or for men (if you’re female).  Remember that in intelligence tests, boys do better in mathematics, science, economics, and spatial relation tests, and girls in so-called “social intelligence” – understanding of people and intimate problems of everyday life.  And remember that according to newspaper surveys, most readers of business news and sports are men and most readers of society pages and local news women.  In other words, to make a wild generalization, men love figures, gadgets, and things, and women love talk, sentiment, and people.

2.      And this goes for movies, books, magazines, newspapers, too.  Never mind writing what the public wants – or what you suppose the public wants.  Study your audience and then write what you want to say in the form that is most likely to appeal to them.

3.      Proper focusing becomes difficult when you have neither a group of people nor a series of events.  Then what?  There is a way, but it’s rather hard to put in simple words. Let me try.

      What you are after, as you are turning your material over in your mind, is something like the one-sentence headline, the typical group member, the turning point in the chain of events – some one thing that will point up the significance of the subject as a whole.  Even if your material looks at first like a shapeless mass of totally different items, there must be one point at which they all converge – otherwise you wouldn’t, or shouldn’t, treat them all together in one piece of writing.  The trouble is that this common denominator is usually so simple and obvious that it’s practically invisible.  It’s the thing you take so much for granted that you never bother to give it a sound thought.  And that’s exactly the trick:  find the underlying feature that you have taken for granted and try to give it a second thought.

4.      The conscious mind, of course, is always more orderly than the unconscious.  That’s why the unconscious is so much better at combining ideas in a novel way.  It puts things together that we never would put together “in our right mind.”  As long as we pay attention to what we are doing, we just cannot make ourselves combine two ideas that, offhand, don’t seem to fit together.  But when the mind is busy with something else, or when we are relaxing or asleep, anything goes.  Our unconscious just keeps toying with idea combinations regardless of whether they make sense or not.  And then – “out of nowhere” – comes the flash of inspiration.

5.      There’s nothing on earth that cannot be told through a hero – or heroine – who’s trying to solve a problem in spite a series of obstacles.  It’s the classic formula; and it’s the only one you can rely on to interest the average reader.

6.      Other people insist that short sentences make dull reading.  There are many, for instance, who would agree that the New Yorker is ten times as readable as the Reader’s Digest.  They are right – but the reason is not the difference in sentence length (New Yorker sentences average 20 words) but rather the difference in sentence variety; the New Yorker contains far more sentences under ten and over thirty words than the Reader’s Digest.  Moral:  stick to a short average sentence, but vary the pattern as much as you can.

7.      Words are, by definition, unpredictable.  In writing, you can predict more or less accurately what your general style and your language structure will do to your readers in general, but you can never predict what a given word will do to a given reader.  That’s a fascinating but exasperating fact anyone who writes has to face.

8.      Well, what can be done about all this?  What can you in your writing do to make sure, as far as possible, that your words will mean the same to your readers as they mean to you?

9.      Language is the most democratic institution in the world.  Its basis is majority rule; its final authority is the people.  If the people decide that they don’t want the subjunctive any more, out goes the subjunctive; if the people adopt okay as a word, in comes okay.  In the realm of language everybody has the right to vote; and everybody does vote, every day of the year.

      The way you talk and write makes a difference in the English language that is being talked and written today.  There is no fixed set of rules:  you are making the rules.  To be sure, there are limits, and there is lots of elbow room for everybody. 

      In one way or another, your language differs from that of anybody else.  It’s part of your own unique personality.  It has traces of the family you grew up in, the place where you came from, the people you have associated with, the jobs you have had, the schools you went to, the books you have read, your hobbies, your sports, your philosophy, your religion, your politics, your prejudices, your memories, your ambitions, your dreams, and your love life.  The way you form your sentences shows your outlook on life; the words you choose show your temperament and your aspirations.

10.  You are fortunate because your language is English.  English is a great language; among the world’s languages it is perhaps the one that gives the individual the greatest freedom.  It is poetic and practical at the same time; it is tremendously rich; it’s a sort of all-purpose language.

11.  With all this wonderful opportunity, why do we speak and write the way we do?  Why aren’t our books and letters and speeches full of racy, colloquial, rhythmical, personal language?  Why do we have to be told by books like this that we are stiff and formal and pompous and unnatural?  Where does it all come from?

The answer goes far beyond grammar and usage; it even goes beyond psychology.  Language is a social affair; we use it according to the social situation we are in.  Our rhetoric is keyed to our place in society – either the one we have or the one we’d like to have. Formal speech and unreadable writing are mostly the products of social conventions.

12.  Those who are secure in their positon at the top usually know that they don’t need such verbal trappings.  They know they can forget about false dignity and use language that suits their personality and the purpose in hand.  They leave conventional rhetoric to those below who will never reach the top, and express themselves with the force and dignity that is natural to them.

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Brian Feinblum’s insightful views, provocative opinions, and interesting ideas expressed in this terrific blog are his alone and not that of his employer or anyone else. You can – and should -- follow him on Twitter @theprexpert and email him at He feels much more important when discussed in the third-person. This is copyrighted by BookMarketingBuzzBlog © 2018. Born and raised in Brooklyn, he now resides in Westchester. His writings are often featured in The Writer and IBPA’s Independent.  This was named one of the best book marketing blogs by Book Baby and recognized by Feedspot in 2018 as one of the top book marketing blogs. Also named by as a "best resource.” He recently hosted a panel on book publicity for Book Expo America and participated in a PR panel at the Sarah Lawrence College Writers Institute Conference.

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