Everything You Learned About Writing in College Is Wrong

by Oct 22, 2019Business

If you want to be a clear communicator, you have to forget college writing

When we’re growing up in the educational system, we’re taught to write in a way that builds complex thoughts and sentences. Big vocabulary words are prized. The more syllables the words you use, the higher the grade you’ll get. While those lessons might be good for earning high marks on your report cards, they will sink you in business- especially when it comes to your ability to communicate effectively.

To say that another way, if you want to become a better business communicator, you need to forget everything you learned in college.

Before you reach through the screen and try to strangle me, let me explain.

Early in my career, I was an engineer and I had no idea how to write (some might argue that’s still the case). That turned out to be a good thing because I had much less to unlearn when it came to writing. What I learned is that it’s often the more simply you write, the better others can understand you. I know, it sounds anti-education, and believe me I am not against education, but for clear communication, we need to do things a little differently.

It turns out you can measure how sophisticated your writing is based on a metric called “grade level,” which approximates the level of education someone needs to be comfortable understanding your writing. The lower the grade you write, the easier it is for more people to understand the point you’re trying to make. This appealed to me as an engineer – math applied to writing!

Consider that the Wall Street Journal is written at a 12th-grade level- which means that a senior in high school can understand the articles fairly easily. Maybe more shocking is that some of the greatest writers ever, like Shakespeare, Hemmingway, and Carroll, commonly wrote somewhere between the 8th grade and 12th-grade levels. That’s why their writing is so readable and understandable. Great writers understand that by making things simple, their words endure the test of time.

So, what drives the grade level of writing? It comes down to just a couple of things. One is the average length of your sentences. When it comes to sentence length, short is typically better than long. If you have a sentence with multiple commas in it (which pros call a run-on sentence) you’re trying too hard. It’s most effective if you vary the length of your sentences to make the rhythm easier for the reader. Another tip is to read your writing out loud to see how easy it is to speak. If you can’t say it smoothly, they can’t read it smoothly.

Another big factor in grade level is the sophistication of the words that you use. Specifically, the number of three-syllable words. The shorter the words, the better- especially when it comes to writing memos and emails. I am not banning three-syllable words from your writing, sometimes there is a perfect word and it’s a big one, then use it. But on average, you should avoid lots of three-syllable words if writing for understanding.

Finally, watch out for the kinds of verbs you use. They should be strong, active verbs rather than weak, passive ones. As an example, you want to write something like “The manager wrote the report yesterday” (active) rather than “The report was written yesterday” (passive).

There is a function in Microsoft Word where you can do a grade-level check on your own writing. If you run a spelling and grammar check on a piece of writing, it will tell you what grade it was written at.

I recall a time when, back in the early days of my career, when I received a memo (yeah, not an e-mail) from a Vice president high up in the company. He was a super smart guy with multiple degrees from MIT. As soon as I opened the memo I knew I was in trouble. It wasn’t a giant document; it was only 6-8 paragraphs. After reading just the first two lines, my eyes began to blur, and my head throbbed. I battled halfway through before I just threw up my hands and gave up. The words the guy was using weren’t above me, but he used all the big words he knew at once. Worse, his sentences just seemed to go forever – 30-40 words. That’s when I remember the grade level tool. Guess what I found when I ran the test on this VP’s email? It was at the 26th-grade level! Are you kidding me? He was writing at a theoretical level that no one other than him could understand.

The point is that when it comes to writing and communicating well in business, it’s often best to keep things simple. Don’t try to outsmart yourself or your audience by trying to sound too smart. Chances are, no one will know what you’re talking about.

Shorter and varied length sentences

Less three-syllable words

Active verbs

Makes for easy reading and clear communication.

And for the record, this article is written at the seventh-grade level.