Think you can write? Do these four things.
First, pull out the last brief that you wrote.
Not that one — that’s the final version, edited by guys who could write. We’re looking for your work, untouched by others. Find the unedited draft that you first circulated. (If you don’t have a draft brief handy, that’s okay. Find the last long email that you sent to someone who matters — to the partner, the client, the general counsel, or the CEO.)
Second, click through this link, which will tell you how to enable Microsoft Word’s “readability” feature on your computer. Enable that feature.
Third, let the readability feature score your work.
Finally, take a handkerchief and wipe the spit out of your eye. (I bet you didn’t realize that a computer could spit in your eye.)
You didn’t notice the spit? Here it comes: Compare your readability score to the average readability score for the works of bestselling authors. . . .
I didn’t even know about Microsoft’s readability feature until I published a column on legal writing last month. I argued in favor of using short sentences and the active voice. A reader — Steve Dykstra, who’s a legal recruiter and budding novelist in Toronto — promptly sent me an enlightening email. Steve also subjected my work — my column on legal writing — to Microsoft Word’s readability test. Steve then told me how my column compared to the work of bestselling authors.
I’ll first share with you the information that Steve offered:
There is a book called The Writer’s Little Helper [affiliate link] by James Smith. It’s a terrific book for fiction writers. James did a study of the top bestselling authors and found that, as a group, they use short words, short sentences and an active voice.
James suggests using the readability feature on Microsoft Word to help fiction authors write in bestseller style. He says that to write like a bestselling author your writing should have the following features:
Average words per sentence: 15 maximum
Average characters per word: 4.5 maximum
Passive voice: 5% maximum
Flesch Reading Ease: 80% minimum
Flesch-Kincaid Level: 6 maximum
The Flesch-Kincaid Level essentially pegs the grade level of writing. Thus, James has determined that most bestsellers write at a Grade 6 or lower level.
Compare those numbers to what the readability feature just told you about that draft brief that you wrote. Do you notice the spit in your eye now?
Care to write in a style that encourages people to read? You could do worse than to model your writing on the work of bestselling authors, couldn’t you?
I understand how folks could criticize what I’m saying: Hemingway might score high on readability, but Faulkner, Shakespeare, and Joyce would not. You can be a great writer without using short sentences and small words.
Absolutely. When you write like Shakespeare, gimme a call. Until then, let’s settle for letting readers understand what you’ve written.
But, you protest, we’re lawyers, not bestselling authors! We’re paid to explain complex ideas to sophisticated readers, not to lure plebeians into buying romance novels.
Right: So you have to work even harder to simplify your stuff. You’re expressing complex ideas, which will naturally be hard for a reader to understand. And your reader is overworked. And your reader is not nearly as interested in what you have to say as someone who’s actually forked over a few bucks to buy a book. You have your work cut out for you; how can you simplify enough?
You can do it! Really. You can. Go back and shorten your sentences. Replace the passive voice with active. Turn prepositional phrases (“the provision of”) into verbs (“providing”). Change “acquire” and “purchase” into “buy.” Substitute “to” for every “in order to.” Use “after” instead of “subsequent to.”
I swear it’s not so hard, and the readability feature will love you for it. Your readers will, too.
I’ll close with the scary part of the email that Steve Dykstra sent in response to my column on legal writing: “I ran your latest article through Word’s readability feature and here’s what I found.”
Uh, oh. I don’t like that windup, and I fear the pitch. How bad is it?
Average words per sentence: 15.2
Average characters per word: 4.5
Passive voice: 1%
Flesch Reading Ease: 69%
Flesch-Kincaid Level: 7
Thus, your column was very close to the stats attained by bestsellers.
Eureka! I like that readability feature! Everyone should use it!
(I’m actually a little annoyed by that “1% passive voice” thing. I almost surely wrote, “This is an example of a sentence written in the passive voice; avoid this flaw at all costs: [Sentence in passive voice.]” And then the computer held that sentence against me. Somehow, that doesn’t seem fair.)
Please don’t slavishly follow the readability rules. You could end up writing like a first grader, satisfying the computer and alienating your human readers.
But if the readability score told you that you’re using 30-word sentences, two-dollar words where two-bit ones would do, and the passive voice 20 or 30 percent of the time, then you’ve got some ‘splainin’ to do.
Not just ‘splainin’. Some editin’, too.
Go for it. Train yourself. Soon you’ll have hard-wired the rules into your brain, and you’ll naturally write like a pro.
Just don’t run this column (or any of the others that I’ve written) through that readability thing. That test is meant only for you.
Mark Herrmann is the Chief Counsel – Litigation and Global Chief Compliance Officer at Aon, the world’s leading provider of risk management services, insurance and reinsurance brokerage, and human capital and management consulting. He is the author of The Curmudgeon’s Guide to Practicing Law and Inside Straight: Advice About Lawyering, In-House And Out, That Only The Internet Could Provide (affiliate links). You can reach him by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.