Here's my pick of the best books, videos, plugins and other online writing tools for boosting your wordpower. These are the writing tools and resources I use every day and recommend to my students as a matter of course.
Writing tools to help maximise your writing's readability
Wouldn’t it be great to get professional feedback on all your business writing? If getting a second pair of eyes on your work isn’t possible, the next best thing is to run your business writing through an online readability tool.
Here’s our pick of the free online tools that give you a visual snapshot of how readable a piece of writing is. Choose the one you like best, or use them all to get a balanced overview of how your work rates.
They'll not only help you write better. They're also perfect to pull out if, like me, you often have to defend a clear-English rewrite of somebody else's bloated business writing.
The Writer’s DietThe Writer’s Diet is like having your own personal trainer who’ll tell you straight whether your sentences are flabby or fit. Run a piece of business writing through this tool and it will rate aspects of your text on a scale from lean (yay!) to heart attack territory (yikes!).
Request a free full diagnosis and you’ll get a downloadable pdf with more detailed feedback and hints on how to tone up your text.
Here's the tool’s diagnosis for a dire bit of biz babble from JJB Sports I discussed on the blog a while back:
And here’s the doctor’s verdict on our toned-up rewrite:
The Writer’s Diet is actually aimed at academic writers. But most producers of bad business writing seem to be trying to ape bad academic writers – by overusing nouns, for example. So it’s great for corporate types, too.
One caveat from the tool’s designer, Helen Sword: stylish writers have the confidence and skill to play with language in ways the test isn’t designed to assess. So even fabulous pieces of prose can be diagnosed as flabby or in heart attack territory.
But if you’re striving to be understood, rather than for literary effect - which should be the default for any piece of business writing - take Sword’s advice and fight the flab.
The Gunning-Fog Index Developed in 1952 by Robert Gunning, an American businessman, The Gunning-Fog Index scores you on how readable your writing is. It does so by measuring the length of your words and sentences. From there, it calculates the number of years of formal education someone needs to have had if they are to understand your writing.
Assuming most people start school at five years of age, you’ll need to add five to your final figure to work out how old your average reader will be. So, a fog index of 12 means your reader will need to have the same reading ability of a typical UK sixth-former or US 12th grader (around 17 years old).
Which means if you’re aiming for a general audience, you’ll certainly need to get your business writing to score below 12 – and ideally under eight.
The writing tool also tells you how many major punctuation marks, such as full stops you’ve used, because short sentences are more readable than long ones.
And it highlights in blue any words of three syllables or more. Replace as many as you can with shorter synonyms and you’ll improve your score.
Here’s how that terrible bit of business writing from JJB Sports rates:
We estimate you'd need to be on the verge of submitting your PhD to understand this piece of business writing. And check out that sea of blue!
In contrast, here's our simpler rewrite, which has a light sprinkling of blue and could be understood by someone who's just hit their teens:
Since 1979, the Plain English Campaign has been fighting the war on jargon, gobbledygook and meaningless corporate drivel.
The organisation’s Drivel Defence tool is useful if you tend to write over-long sentences. It tells you instantly how many words each sentence contains (the figures in pink in the pictures below) and highlights in big blue letters your longest sentence.
For clear business writing, you should aim to shorten any sentence over 24 words and keep most of your sentences under 20 words.
Before running your text through this writing tool, check the "possible alternative words" box. This will scan for simpler alternative words and highlight them in red. It then provides a simpler synonym for any word listed in the Plain English Campaign’s A-Z of Alternative Words (pdf) - more on that tool below.
Again, here’s what that piece of business writing from JJB Sports looks like.
Unfortunately, the tool won't pick up on every nefarious neologism coined in the corporate world so it's overlooked that crime against clarity that is "operationalising". Also, the figures are slightly distorted because the tool has read the bullet point copy as one sentence.
Still, you get the picture when you compare the original to our simpler version. We've almost halved the figure for longest sentence:
Of all the free online writing tools I introduce students to, Hemingway Editor is probably the one they love - and use - the most. The tool is named after the American writer famous for his clear, simple direct prose style - and it suggests ways to bring a similar clarity, simplicity and directness to your business writing.
Like other writing tools I’ve discussed, Hemingway Editor grades your business writing for readability. It also tells you how long a passage takes to read – a great little feature for those of us who include video scripts in our business writing repertoire.
The tool highlights sentences that are hard to read, very hard to read and contain instances of the passive voice (Check out a free preview of lecture 63 of my business writing course for an explanation of the passive voice).
It also points out adverbs, the parts of speech with which the road to hell is paved, according to author, Stephen King.
And you can hover over any words highlighted in dark purple to get simpler word recommendations.
But what’s particularly great about Hemingway Editor is you can edit your business writing in it as you go. And, in response to feedback from writers, the team responsible for the tool has introduced buttons for adding basic formatting to your text, such as bold and italics, bullet points and heading styles.
All in all, Hemingway Editor is the pick of the bunch when it comes to online writing tools. And for those who can’t guarantee constant internet access - or are worried about the confidentiality of their business writing - it’s available as a desktop app for Mac and PC for just $9.99.
Readability tool in Word If you don’t want to pay for the Hemingway Editor desktop app but are still reluctant - or unable - to check your business writing online, you can always fall back on the readability tool in Word.
Check out my previous article, Word’s readability scores – and how to use them, where I demonstrate this tool using another real-life example of impenetrable business writing – and its simplified alternative.
Writing tools and resources to help you pick the right words
Please note: Some of the links below and all of the books contain affiliate links by which I earn a small commission at no extra cost to you. If you do buy after following the links, thank you for your support. I never promote products unless I’ve used and loved them myself.
Up-Goer 5Up-Goer Five text editor is a delightful online tool that challenges you to describe an idea using only the most common 1,000 words in English. And trust me - it’s harder than it sounds.
The name “Up-Goer Five” comes from an attempt to describe a Saturn V rocket in this way (“rocket” is a no-no – hence “up-goer”). Check out this charming diagram of “the only flying space car that’s taken anyone to another world”.
It may sound as if using Up-Goer 5 offers little more than a fun challenge when it comes to business writing, but limiting yourself to 1,000 words really forces you to simplify a complex topic. And that, in turn, forces you to think harder and more creatively about your business writing. It’s one reason a lot of scientists have used the tool to explain their research to lay people. Check out this article in Scientific American.
As Einstein once said: ‘If you can’t explain it to a six-year-old, you don’t understand it yourself’.
A newer version of the tool, Up-Goer 6, colour codes your words according to how frequently they’re used rather than rejecting them outright.
Using everyday words is an important first step towards clearer, more persuasive writing. This downloadable pdf is simply a handy list of simpler alternatives to the kind of stodgy words so beloved of bad business writers.
Download a copy and keep it on your desk (and maybe another copy by your bed).
Then, whenever you find yourself using a word or phrase that you wouldn't normally use in everyday speech, look up the simpler, clearer alternative.
As the guide says itself: it will help you get rid of words like ‘notwithstanding’, ‘expeditiously’, and phrases like ‘in the majority of instances’ and ‘ at this moment in time’.
Did you know Bill Bryson cut his teeth as a sub-editor on The Times? In this book, he explains the difference between infer and imply, uninterested and disinterested, and many other easily confused words.
Resources to help you polish your writing syle
Ignore the bit in the headline about it being for journalists, this is a an absolute must-read for anyone interested in producing more persuasive business writing.
Written by a science writer and journalist, it’s packed with wonderful, essential advice like: ‘You are writing to impress someone hanging from a strap in the tube between Parson's Green and Putney, who will stop reading in a fifth of a second, given a chance.’
Definitely one of my all-time favourite pieces of writing about writing - the piece I recommend most often and the piece people thank me most often for recommending. As one commenter says, ‘Keep it safe and hug it to sleep every night’.
Don’t be put off by the rather specialist-sounding title - this downloadable pdf is packed with great business writing advice, even if you aren’t about to submit a document to the US financial regulator.
Worth downloading for the preface alone - it was written by the investor Warren Buffett, who’s as renowned for his homely, straight-talking business writing as he is for his financial wizardry. Oh, and if you’ve ever wondered how we got our name, Doris and Bertie Ltd, Warren’s got the answer!
A wonderful book about writing and being a writer. Includes exercises and activities to warm up your writer’s muscles.
The famous cognitive scientist on what constitutes an elegant written style – and why good style matters. But beware – Pinker is an academic so this isn't light reading, but rewarding nonetheless.
This best-selling guide to English usage is a great basis for creating your own business writing style guide.
The classic pocket guide to clear and elegant writing, if a bit prescriptivist.
Learn to Write Badly is a caustic but entertaining critique of the parlous state of modern academic writing. Possibly of more interest to professors than business people, but I’ve included it here simply because bad business writing has loads in common with bad academic writing. For example, pretentious prose, writing lots of words but saying nothing, and using too many nouns.
This is the only book by Stephen King I’ve ever read. But you don’t have to be a fan of spooky thrillers to enjoy it - and King’s advice is as relevant to business writing as it is to the novelist’s craft. The book is part memoir of King’s life (especially his recovery from a horrific road accident), and part writing guide. You’ll find here some great nuggets of writing advice wittily delivered - such as the declaration that ‘the road to hell is paved with adverbs’.
Guides and resources to boost your writing's persuasiveness
I normally advise newbie writers to avoid consulting a thesaurus – and I can always tell if a student or client has used one. Author Stephen King would agree – according to him, “Any word you have to hunt for in a thesaurus is the wrong word. There are no exceptions to this rule.”
But it turns out there is one exception: when that thesaurus is Words that Sell by Richard Bayan. This clever little book provides more than 6,000 words and phrases that will boost your chances of making a sale. And they’re handily organised by category – from opening lines to enhancing your company’s image.
Most professional copywriters (in the UK, at least) have at least one Andy Maslen book on their shelf. In Write to Sell, the top copywriter reveals the tricks of the trade for persuading people to part with their cash. His follow-up, Persuasive Copywriting, shows you how to use recent findings from neuroscience to make people to buy.
I love this thoroughly readable guide that asks – and answers – the question: why do some ideas thrive and others die? I find myself returning to this book often, particularly when I’m working on an internal comms project and am looking for inspiration. If you like Malcolm Gladwell’s books, you’ll love this.
‘Overcoming the Curse of Knowledge’ on the Measure of Doubt blog An article about how to communicate complex ideas to non-experts. Includes a list of words that have different meanings for scientists and the public.
How to write a compelling executive summary Author and journalist Geoffrey James specialises in writing about business - and writing about business writing. In this fabulous piece, he talks you through his template for writing an executive summary that gets the decision you want. For more help with report writing see my posts Report Writing: Be Clear About What You Want and Executive Summary: How to Wow Your Readers.
How to write a mission statement that doesn’t suck I love this short video that shows exactly how good mission statements turn bad.
My online writing course at Udemy.com. Aimed at business people, but full of practical tips for any writer who wants to inform, engage and persuade readers. Using the link above entitles you to 85% off the enrolment price of the course. Check out the course intro:
Tools to help you edit and proofread your business writing
Text to speech function in Word We all find it hard to proofread our own business writing - and every writer’s got a tale to tell about the shame-inducing typo that managed to evade multiple rounds of edits. But there are things you can do to increase your chances of catching those credibility-sapping little blighters.
One way to minimise your chances of missing typos is to get your computer to read your business writing back to you, using its text-to-speech function. This works because, unlike your brain, your computer reads what’s actually there, not what you think is there. A dyslexic client of mine never publishes without running his work through this tool.
Check out this blogger’s instructions for using the tool (instructions in the comments if you use a Mac).
From the Modern Language Association. A great read if you’re serious about becoming a better writer. Describes itself as “The one book that shows you how to make what you say as good as what you mean”.
Writing tools and resources to help you keep an eye on grammar and punctuation
This browser plugin will help flag any grammatical errors in your writing before you hit the publish button. Remember, your first job is to persuade your reader. If this means flouting the rules of grammar, then, by all means, flout. But Grammarly is a useful filter to catch any unintentional errors, particularly if English isn't your native language.
This is the place to go if you need an explanation of any grammar rules and usage. But beware! Strict adherence to rules of grammar alone does not make you a better writer. Advertisers, for instance, are perfectly happy to break grammar rules when it suits them (although it's important you understand a rule before choosing to ignore it). Remember your job is to persuade your reader to do or think what you want.
Stroppy Editor For a common-sense approach to grammar and usage, and sensible writing advice check out my favourite blogger. The blog's author writes long, intelligent posts railing against whose who insist on adherence to pointless rules.
Inspiration for using metaphors and analogies for more persuasive business writing
I always recommend using metaphor and analogy to get a complex, specialist subject over to a general readership without dumbing down. This blog post gives some good examples and below are some resources to tone up your metaphor muscles.
A guide to honing your metaphor-developing skills so you can explain anything to anyone. Aimed at business people, but the principles apply to academic writing too.
Cognitive scientist Douglas Hofstadter discusses the role of analogy in cognition, using a variety of analogies to illustrate his points. A fascinating lecture that demonstrates why the human brain responds so well to analogy. More evidence of the usefulness of analogy in getting complex information across to the widest possible audience.
Check out this website for a breathtakingly powerful demonstration of the persuasiveness of analogy.
Tools to pump up the SEO and virality of your business writing
What makes something go viral? Why do certain things get shared, while others die a death? Wharton School professor Jonah Berger draws on recent to research to exaplain how you can increase your chances of your product or idea catching on.
Yoast SEO Yoast.com is for all things SEO related. Their free Wordpress plugin helps you produce business writing that’s optimised for Google. Tell the plugin what keyword you’re targeting and this nifty little tool will tell you how your headline, body text, meta-descriptions and more all perform for that keyword.
Warning: trying to get all green in Yoast’s traffic-light system can become a dangerously addictive pastime.
Headline Analyzer Like Yoast's plugin, this is another fiendishly addictive tool if you’re interested in boosting the SEO value of your business writing. Headline Analyzer will rate your headline according to the various factors that have been proven to increase social shares, increased traffic and search engine ranking - such as:
The number of words
The headline’s emotional content, and
Sentiment (positive beats negative)
As others have suggested, you probably shouldn’t feel totally bound by the Headline Analyzer. But it does get you into the habit of trying different options instead just of settling for your first try - and that’s definitely a good thing.
That's all for now. But stay tuned for regular resource updates. And, if you have any resources that can help us all with our writing, head over to the comments section of this Good Copy, Bad Copy post and let your fellow scribes in on it!