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Righting writing wrongs

Of all the elements that constitute excellence in the written word, clarity is no doubt the most important. One of the most serious mistakes businesspeople make is writing to impress and not to express. To illustrate, I used to work with an attorney who informed a vendor, “When I juxtapose empirical inefficiency with theoretical competence, […]

Of all the elements that constitute excellence in the written word, clarity is no doubt the most important. One of the most serious mistakes businesspeople make is writing to impress and not to express. To illustrate, I used to work with an attorney who informed a vendor, “When I juxtapose empirical inefficiency with theoretical competence, inevitably and invariably, empirical inefficiency prevails.”

Of course, the whole point of the utterance may have been to overwhelm the listener, in which case the lawyer succeeded. But if clear expression was the purpose, the listener missed the point entirely.            

Can you quantify clarity?

It may surprise you to learn that, in fact, you can! What follows are three Indices of Excellence. Study these quantifiable approaches to good writing and then apply them to a recent communication you have written. Take the time to right the “wrongs” you find. It’s the best way to acquire new, improved communication habits.

Index #1:        Average Sentence Length            

Count how many words in each sentence from a recent memo you wrote. Then divide that total by the number of sentences. If you averaged more than 15 words per sentence, you are heading into the domain of dense writing. Obscurity and not clarity is the ruler of this domain.

Index #2:        Variety in Sentence Length           

 If all your sentences were of approximately the same length, you would soon bore your audience. Boredom leads to disinterest and disinterest spells failure for the would-be influencer. There is an easy way to determine whether you have variety in your sentence length. You have already counted the number of words in your sentences. Now draw a bar chart showing at a glance what your sentences look like when measured in increments of five. If the chart has great variety, you are more likely to capture and maintain your reader’s interest.            

 Once a month, do another graph from a randomly selected communication. Keep your graphs in a folder so you can tell at a glance if you are getting better. Do this until you have formed the habit of varying the length of your sentences.

Index #3:        Variety in Your Paragraph Length            

“Eyeballing” the size of your paragraphs is one way to measure their lengths. Another way is simply to count how many lines in each paragraph. The more variety you have, the more visually compelling your message will be. Obese paragraphs of uniform length are a turn-off for readers.

Leaders who are inarticulate

James Hayes, former head of the American Management Association, once noted that leaders who are inarticulate make us all uneasy. Regardless of your inclination toward leadership, you can make others easy in your presence by using these indices to improve your articulation.

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