Here’s a question we’ve all asked ourselves: What makes a successful flower grower? I could pull out my old MBA books, I could list a litany of skills and traits, and we could all point to somebody who has made it big and say, “Now, they have what it takes.”
But there’s one thing all successful growers have in common. In fact, all successful people claim this trait. If you’ve followed the last two pieces I’ve written, you know what comes next.
It’s writing—the ability to string a few words together into a cohesive sentence that clearly conveys a message.
Some might say writing is dying. We don’t need to know how to write in the modern world. We’ve got all sorts of new ways to communicate—who needs the antiquated drudgery of the written world?
You do. We all do.
Whether we are selling to our customers or communicating to our employees, whether we’re crafting an email to a displeased buyer or writing a press release for the local journalist, it is imperative that our words appear as splendid as our product.
Good communication is what separates the struggling from the successful.
My last two pieces focused on key parts of running a business. The first focused on the value of a well-written e-letter. We wouldn’t have a flower farm without ours. It’s how we communicate our mission, our vision and our brand. It’s what separates us from the others.
In my second piece, I described the value of strong website copy. This one is huge. I don’t have to explain the value of a good website. I merely have to ask a question. When was the last time you bought from a site that used bad grammar, had misspelled words or that failed to gain your trust?
Even if the decision wasn’t conscious, it’s what happens behind the scenes in our brain that makes the big choices. The deep recesses of our minds don’t tolerate compromise. One twisted word, one misplaced phrase, and our brain is screaming to move on and find something better.
You’ve seen it. You get an email from a Nigerian prince. It’s a hyperbolic example, but what is your conscious mind saying as you trudge through each grammatical error? It’s not pretty. Now imagine what your oh-so-savvy unconscious mind is saying.
It does this all the time. Every ad we see, every site we visit, every email we get—our mind is scanning, looking for signs of trust and authority. That’s why good writing is so important. Whether you’re submitting a quote to a wholesale client or responding to a customer’s inquiry, good writing is essential.
Fortunately, good writing is not an art. It’s not a gift a lucky few are born with. It’s a science we can all learn. In fact, follow the mathematical equation that I’m about to show you and you’ll instantly become a better writer, if not a great writer.
We’ve all been taught that simpler is better. We all know it is true.
Yet, this is a hard rule for a lot of folks. We naturally want to show our smarts to our readers. We want to impress them with our big words and our robust vocabulary. Who hasn’t tossed in the Latin name of a flower just to show we know it? We must not fall for it.
Instead, we must impress readers with the beauty of a simple, well-honed sentence.
Ernest Hemingway—the king of simple writing—put it best. “If I started to write elaborately,” he wrote, “I found that I could cut that scrollwork or ornament out and throw it away.”
Big words and long sentences have no place in effective writing. The best sentences are short. They get in. They get out. And they keep the reader moving.
Very few folks know it, but there’s actually a math formula that tells us when we’re hitting our mark. It’s a tool that you should use every day. Getting a passing grade from it should be the foremost idea as you write. It’s called the Flesch-Kincaid readability score. It looks like this.
0.39 (total words/total sentences) plus 11.8 (total syllables/total words) – 15.59
They don’t teach this math in schools but it’s a wonderful thing.
The F/K equation gives us a very powerful product. It gives our writing a grade level. Counter to common belief, the lower the grade, the better. Grade 8 is considered the benchmark. Above it and your work is too complex. You have revising to do. Below it and you’re on track—the further, the better.
All the words above are written on a fifth-grade level. It doesn’t mean I’m insulting your intelligence as I write. I know you know bigger words. Instead, I’m doing you the favor of writing a piece that’s easy to read and doesn’t take too much time. The folks who read your messages—perhaps a loan officer, a client or an employee trying to figure something out—will appreciate it, too.
What things affect the score?
Simple. It measures two main things. First, it counts the number of words in a sentence. Less is more. Second, it averages the number of syllables used per word.
The shorter the word and the shorter the sentence, the higher the score.
“See Spot run.” It’s a short sentence with very few syllables.
“Observe as the canine with the moniker ‘Spot’ travels at a fast-moving velocity,” pushes the gauge the other way. That sentence is written at an 11th-grade level. It’s quite bad. Never write a sentence like that.
Both lines mean the same thing. But only one sentence will stick with us from first grade until retirement. Now you know why.
Here’s the great news. Checking your F/K score is easy. Again, most folks have no idea. Even English teachers don’t know about this writing hack.
If you use Microsoft Word, the feature is a bit buried, but it’s easy to turn on. Simply go into your “proofing” options and check the “Readability Statistics” button. After that, each time you check your work for spelling errors, the system will show you your score.
If you’re not using a program that has the F/K equation built into it, easy. There are all sorts of free online offerings. Just search for “Flesch Kincaid check” and you’ll see a host of sites.
Again, if a piece has a grade level of eight or higher, you have some cuts to make.
Use short sentences, replace long words and break up your paragraphs. The goal is to make your reader enjoy your message. It must not feel like work.
Each day, I hear the same woe. “But, Andy, I’m just not a good writer.” It’s hogwash. Anybody can write well. Anybody can communicate effectively through the printed word.
I just showed you the most effective trick out there. Use it. You need to. Thanks to the internet, there are more words in front of us each day than ever before.
Good writing simply means following the rules. Don’t be fancy. Don’t dazzle with big words. It won’t work. Dazzle with a piece that gets readers happily from one end to the other. Start with the basics. And end with the basics.
There’s more math in effective writing than there is art. Cut one third of the words you write. Make sure you hook the reader with intrigue (not false brilliance) in the first three lines. And be embarrassed each time you repeat a word. Keep your sentences short, and your words shorter.
Do that and I promise you won’t just be a better writer. You’ll be great. That means more sales, happier customers and a much more successful business.
Writing is our most powerful tool. Keep it sharp.
Andy Snyder and his wife, Loni, own Terra Farms, a popular u-pick farm in southern Pennsylvania.
Andy is a full-time writer and copy consultant. He can be reached at [email protected]