Be smart. Write better.

The screen flashed the report.  It told me that I write at a post-graduate level.  It compared my writing to insurance documents.  I was proud.  I scored high.  No one could follow a single 62 word sentence I wrote.  But the computer told me I was smart.  Truth was I was being dumb.  I made things overly complex to feel smarter.

I remember teachers coming to ask me what a word I used meant.  They didn’t know the word (It was “Reify”).  I thought I was smart.  Truth was I was being dumb.  I chose obscure words to feel smarter.

The New York Times is written at an 8th grade reading level.  It can still require focus to read and follow.  It’s only at the 8th grade level though.  So much for the elite New York Times.  I was writing at a 20th grade level.  It took multiple color highlighters to follow what I was writing.  My poor audience!  I thought I was being smart.  I was being dumb.  I lost my audience at the first fork in the road.

A few years ago, I reviewed Colleen Barrett’s rules for writing.  It changed my writing life.  She was the President of Southwest Airlines at the time.  She had simple easy to learn set of rules for communicating in writing.  Colleen is a master of communication.  In just a few minutes I learned to write smartly instead of writing to look smart.  I still practice today what I learned from her.

Here are a few things I’ve learned from Colleen and from spending time writing:

  • Be brief – Write sentences that are as short as possible.
  • Be clear – Break up sentences that start with If, When or Since into multiple sentences.
    • Most conditional logic sentences that start with “If, When, or Since” will be too long and complex.
    • Break them up.  Figure out how the sentences will work as definitive statements.
    • You’ll wind up with tw0 or three sentences.  It will be clearer
  • Be direct –  Avoid use sentences that require commas.  Commas are a good sign you’re being indirect.
  • Be modern – Ignore the anachronistic, arbitrary rule that says not to end a sentence with a preposition.
  • Have a point – Why are you writing this anyway?   Can’t answer that.  Keep it to yourself.

Whether it’s an email, a memo, a blog post or a book …  Be smart. Write better.

Your audience will follow you more easily.  They might do what you ask.   You’ll look smarter, too.

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