By Kathy Widenhouse, award-winning nonprofit content writer, website publisher, and author of 9 books.
Updated 11.16.2023 by Kathy Widenhouse, award-winning content writer, website publisher, and author of 9 books.
Want clear writing? You’re not alone. “Very few people have the ability to write effortlessly and perfectly,” said noted technical writer Marvin H. Swift (1923–2007), writing in the Harvard Business Review. “Most of us must sweat over the process of revision, drafting, and redrafting until we get it right.”
But you can reduce your writing sweat and tears with a few simple tools. One of those tools is brevity. Clear writing is short.
Bob Bly calls the approach the “4 S Formula”: short words. Short sentences. Short paragraphs. Short sections.
In truth, the 4 S’s technically aren’t a writing formula (which is a template or outline to follow as you write) but rather a helpful rule of thumb. Each of the S’s indicates a different way you can “write short.” Follow these four simple guidelines and your writing will be clearer and easier to read.
“I love words, but I don’t like strange ones,” said American humorist and entertainer Will Rogers (1879–1935). “You don’t understand them and they don’t understand you.” And readers don’t understand them either — or at least, are confused by them.
Much better to use a ten-cent word than a ten-dollar word so that your reader can follow your meaning. That means use rather than utilize … build rather than fabricate … end rather than terminate. If you can use a short word and keep the meaning of a phrase, do so. You’ll have clearer writing.
Research from the American Press Institute shows that readers find sentences of 8 words or less very easy to read … sentences with 11 words are easy … and sentences with 14 words fairly easy to read. A sentence containing 17 words is standard.
But get to 21 words in a sentence and readers say it’s fairly difficult to wrap their minds around your content. Bump up to 25 words and reading becomes hard and 29 words or more it’s very difficult for readers to understand and retain what you say. Want clear writing? Use short sentences.
Shorter paragraphs, like shorter sentences, are easier to read. In fact, short paragraphs have earned the “most-favored” status in digital content because readers skim online. But whether you’re online or on paper, you can shorten your paragraphs using these few simple tips.
A section is a group of paragraphs that combine to make a point or address an idea. As with paragraphs, you’ve got plenty of leeway when it comes to deciding how long a section should be. And for today’s short attention spans, shorter is better.
Try these three tips for writing short sections. First, make sure you’ve got a clear topic paragraph. And second, wrap up your section with a punch … or with a sentence that leads you to the next section. Finally, help your reader visually by using subheads to show sections.
“Having just the essential things is better than having way too much of superfluous things.” So says online writing instructor Jordan Conrad on the online platform Writing Explained.
Cut out the word fat from your writing and go short. Your readers will thank you. And they’ll better understand what you write.
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