How to get everyone to write like Ernest Hemingway

Probably everyone on your team agrees that elearning should be concise and lively. But does everyone agree on what “concise and lively” looks like? Here’s one way to get everyone on the same stylistic page.

Quantify, quantify

When we talk about writing style, we can get bogged down in personal preferences that are hard to communicate. But if we use readability statistics to quantify style, it’s easier to guide writers.

I’m not talking about the nearly useless “ninth-grade reading level” requirement in your corporate style guide. Instead, let’s look at the Reading Ease measurement that’s part of Word’s readability check. It’s a much more practical guide, especially if you compare your score with that of familiar publications.

Reading ease scores of several publications

What does this chart tell us?

Want to be popular? Aim for a high score.

The highest-circulation magazines tend to have the highest readability scores. Coincidence? I think not!

Instructions can be short and lively

I included Better Homes and Gardens and Family Handyman because they cover a lot of the same territory that elearning does: they motivate you to make a change and tell you how to do it. They also manage to get a high readability score while using terms like “oakleaf hydrangea” and “personalized wrench.”

What score should you aim for?

Many plain-English advocates suggest aiming for a score in the 60s, and that’s my preference, too (this blog post gets a 63). I’ll settle for the 50s if necessary.

Unfortunately, a lot of elearning ends up in the 40-something “Suits” category thanks to corporate drone.

De-drone to improve your score and motivate learners

The reading ease formula considers sentence length and the number of syllables in words, so short sentences with short words score better. But changing your style to get a higher score can also have a profound effect on how the reader feels about you. Here’s an example.

Before

It is expected that all employees will strive to achieve the highest standards of customer service, as service excellence is a competitive differentiator in the market and improving customer service is key to the Firm’s strength as a business. To that end, this course demonstrates the six-step Customer Delightification process which…

After label

Our competition does a pretty good job of customer service. But soon they’ll find out that “pretty good” isn’t good enough, because we’re going to do better. This course will give you …

What happened?

We stopped talking around the issue and stated it directly, the way our CEO might say it. And by using “we” and “you,” we made clear that we’re human beings in a conversation, not robots issuing edicts. These changes also improved our reading ease score by a bajillion percent.

Quick ways to increase your score and sound like a human being

  • Say “you” and “we.”
  • Cut 98% of adjectives and adverbs.
  • Write active sentences that make clear who does what.
  • Use strong verbs instead of wimpy “is.”
  • Look for tacked-on clauses (“blah blah, which…” “blah blah, because…”). Turn them into standalone sentences.

How to check your score in Word

The readability check is part of Word’s spelling and grammar check. So, check your spelling. If you don’t see a window with readability statistics, you need to turn on the feature:

  1. Open Preferences.
  2. Choose Spelling and Grammar.
  3. Check the box next to Show readability statistics.
  4. Check your spelling. You should see the readability results.

Be sure to check a big chunk of text–500 words or more. Short snippets give unreliable results.

Check both on-screen text and narration scripts

All the text associated with your material should be concise, easy to understand, and direct. A lot of narration sounds dull and de-motivating because it’s coming from the “Suits” category.

Why not use grade level?

  1. Grade-level statistics have too much baggage. People worry about offending their audience by writing “below” their educational level. For example, a stakeholder could say, “Our learners all finished college. Therefore, we should write at grade 16. Writing lower than that dumbs down the material.” Using the reading ease score and keeping the conversation focused on magazines read by adults avoids these issues.
  2. Grade levels aren’t global. “Seventh grade” means different things in different cultures, while the reading ease score isn’t tied to the US educational system. You can really localize the process by determining the reading ease scores of local magazines and comparing your materials to them.

For way more about this topic, including research and how-to guides, see Writing for the Web.

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Comments

  1. Ken Allan says:

    Kia ora Cathy!

    What a brilliant post! I have learnt a lot. I also wrote a post that forms part of a series I’ve been gathering not long since I started blogging.

    Ka kite
    from Middle-earth

  2. Amen sister!

    It is hard to get the suits out of the corporate, but it is always a lot more comfortable and enjoyable when they “let their hair down.”
    .
    Style is key I think. Creative, concise, clear, some key elements..and hey, If you have a little fun writing it, don’t you think it will be fun reading it too?

  3. I’d go further and say that whenever you have clients and stakeholders saying “We need to sound professional” or, heaven help us, “Our lawyers say we should use this wording,” you’re at least waist-deep in the lexical Big Muddy.

    Using grade levels rather than a broader index of readability is another sign of the hall-monitor mentality. “See? See? It’s 9.4 and it should be no more than 9.25!”

    Whitehead said things should be made as simple as possible but no simpler. That’s why Family Handyman (a great example) uses specific terminology for tools and techniques. Their article on installing a three-way switch, for example, uses words like “framing,” “remodeling box,” and “traveler terminal” because these make sense in the context of the task.

    (It’s possible to go overboard in emulating a certain author, which is why there’s a Bad Hemingway website. All in all, though, you risk less with simplicity and clarity than you do with polysyllabic, control-freak obfuscation.

  4. Ken Allan says:

    Never fear big words.
    Big words mean little things.
    All big things have little names,
    Such as life and death, peace and war,
    Or dawn, day, night, hope, love, home.
    Learn to use little words in a big way.
    It is hard to do,
    But they say what you mean.
    When you don’t know what you mean,
    Use big words–
    They often fool little people.
    Arthur Kudner

  5. Janaiah says:

    This is an excellent piece of writing on writing for E-Learning. There is a huge research done by Jakob Nielsen, distinguished engineer; PJ Schemenaur, technical editor; and Jonathan Fox, editor-in-chief, http://www.sun.com. They crystal clearly tell us that the reading is quite painful on the computer screen. In addition, they tell us that the writing style should be different from the print.

    Cathy rightly said that usage of words like “you” and others enormously created a personal touch in the technology-enabled taining. Hope to read more such wonderful writing pieces.

  6. Asha says:

    Thanks for writing and sharing this useful article!

  7. Ellen says:

    Hallelujah!!! I do voice over narration for online courses and sometimes I really struggle to actually say what I’m given. I just did the readability on my last course and, you guessed it, it feel into the suits category. I’m passing this article on.

  8. This is a really interesting article. This article is really interesting from a marketing perspective. However I still believe that it’s vitally important we retain high standards in today’s writing. Not everything is about ease and entertainment. Not to say that stuff isn’t good. Perhaps a ‘high score’ isn’t the only thing to strive for!

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