Readability: it's not just about sentence length

Fellow writer Daphne Gray-Grant recently argued the case for varying the length of your sentences to increase readability. She quoted two bits of writing to illustrate the point – you can read her analysis here.

I want to look at the two extracts from a different perspective because I think something else is going on too.

The first extract is from a book called Stumbling on Happiness by Daniel Gilbert.

This much we know for sure: Adolph Fischer did not organize the riot. He did not incite the riot. In fact, he was nowhere near the riot the night the policemen were killed. But his labor union had challenged the stranglehold that Chicago’s powerful industrialists had on the men, women, and children who toiled in their sweatshops toward the end of the nineteenth century, and that union needed to be taught a lesson. So Adolph Fischer was tried and, on the basis of paid and perjured testimony, sentenced to die for a crime he did not commit. On November 11, 1887, he stood on the gallows and surprised everyone with his last words: “This is the happiest moment of my life.”

The second is from Solution Selling by Michael T. Bosworth.

By my definition of a benefit statement, however a seller cannot make a benefit statement initially with a buyer. The prerequisite for a benefit is a buyer vision in which the seller has participated. The prerequisite for that vision is that the prospect trusts the seller enough to admit a problem—and that the seller has the patience to avoid premature elaboration and can diagnose the problem. The prerequisites for a buyer to admit a problem to the seller are trust, sincerity, and competence. And the prerequisite for that trust is for that buyer to conclude the seller is different from most other salespeople.  Once a seller has established rapport, sincerity, and competence and created a vision from an admitted pain, he can then take out his product or service and say, “I believe my product or service will fill that need for you.

The difference in readability isn’t just about sentence length.

It’s also about the fact Gilbert tells a vivid story. A story full of concrete details you can really picture.

In contrast, Bosworth hairdryers you with a load of abstract hot air.

Let’s take a closer look at the language.

Below, I’ve highlighted in green certain types of words in each extract.





Notice the difference?

The words I’ve highlighted are all abstract nouns.

A noun is a person, place or thing. An abstract noun is still a “thing”, of sorts. But a thing you can’t perceive with any of the five senses: touch, sight, smell, hearing or taste.

For example, you can’t smell competence or touch prerequisites.

Bosworth uses nearly seven times as many abstract nouns as Gilbert. Which makes him hard to read because it’s hard to hold in your head lots of things you can’t touch, see, smell, hear or taste.

I’d also suggest the few abstract nouns Gilbert does use are much more powerful than those in Bosworth’s woolly word hoard.

I particularly like stranglehold – an abstract noun but one that's extremely suggestive of power and struggle. In fact, the first half of the word – strangle – is actually a verb (a "doing" word), not a noun.

And that brings me on to the next difference between the two writers. Take a look at these:





The words I've highlighted in pink are all verbs, and the two writers use them in roughly equal amounts.

But again, Gilbert’s language feels more concrete than Bosworth’s (compare his short, sharp incite, killed, toiled and die with Bosworth’s multi-syllabic participated, diagnosed, established and created).

Gilbert’s verbs are redolent of physical toil and violence. Bosworth’s, however, are distant and cerebral - even though all he's talking about is the human desire for stuff. Which is why Gilbert makes you want to read on and Bosworth makes you switch off.

The lessons here? If you want to be more readable:

  1. Use a lot more verbs than nouns

  2. Choose verbs that conjure up the picket line, not an Oxbridge common room

  3. Paint a concrete picture in your reader’s head

  4. Use words that play on the five senses: touch, sight, hearing, smell and taste

  5. Tell a story

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