I’ve been playing with the grammar function in Word after a reminder from the Publication Coach, Daphne Gray-Grant. By paying attention to things like words per sentence (aim for an average of 14 or less), passive sentences (no more than 10%) and Flesch-Kincaid grade level (grade 9 or less), you can make your writing easier to understand.

You will meet with resistance, but be strong. The other day I sent off an employee newsletter article for approval. The fellow, who in conversation had been clear, straightforward and human, sent back his changes. Introducing a lot of $10 words and taking much longer to say passively what he had originally said took the article from a grade 8 reading level to a grade 10. Readability also tanked. I countered with a simplified version of his changes but I don’t know yet if he’ll go for it.

I also used the grammar function on an awful internal announcement a friend sent me. The writer was an HR person, who began the three-page reorganization announcement with a 48-word sentence — nearly 3.5 times the recommended length. (That wasn’t the longest, either. Another one stretched 57 words.)

He threw out comments about “major initiatives” that resulted in a “divestment of assets” and a “more attractive return on the investments made.” Further on, he mentions “necessary personnel actions” that included “the transfer or layoff of employees.” All this just sets the stage. It isn’t until the fifth paragraph that the announcement finally gets to the point: two people are leaving, or as it first says, “will no longer be associated with” the company. Three other people are going to co-chair a team “on a quarterly rotation,” which my friend tells me is the short-term plan until person 3 also leaves.

The grammar summary:

  • Average words per sentence: 29.7 (aim should be 14)
  • Passive sentences: 26% (aim: no more than 10%)
  • Flesch reading ease: 24.3 (aim: 60% or better)
  • Flesch-Kincaid grade level: 12 (aim: grade 9 or less)

Do you suppose the writer wanted the copy to be so dense most people wouldn’t understand it? Yeah, I think so too.