“The definition of genius is taking the complex and making it simple.”
― Albert Einstein
There are a million ways you could express an idea… a million ways you can write a particular sentence, paragraph, or article. What’s the best way?
Ah, the editor in me grins at that question.
As a professional editor and writer, I’m constantly editing other people’s work… as well as my own. My life consists of back-and-forth iterations, document collaborations, red markup, and client emails filled with “How’s this???!” The excitement unfolds as we uncover the best way to express an idea.
Every writing project theoretically could be “edited forever,” but at some point you have to decide on a final version to send to your readers. At some point, the editing chisels the writing down to a clear, succinct final product that reflects the writer’s unfettered human spirit and best ideas — and any further edits would no longer serve a purpose.
In the context of business writing (think: email newsletters, blog articles, sales copy), editing has two primary purposes:
1) To clearly express your idea
2) To make it easy for your readers to buy from you
#1 is infinitely more important than #2… but if you plan to be profitable in business (without relying on government handouts, parents, or GoFundMe), then #2 is also important.
Keep it simple, and use the MEI principle
I tell anti-marketers to use the MEI principle — motivate, educate, inspire — in all of their content, including their writing.
During the editing process, we cut out or reword anything that gets in the way of MEI’ing people.
Convoluted, confusing, cluttered, disorganized, overly intellectualized, or vague writing does not achieve any of our goals.
Fun fact: I love cleaning my kitchen. I do it daily. I keep my countertops sparkling. I’m keenly aware of any unnecessary clutter that crowds the sense of “spaciousness” I want to feel while I’m in that room.
The same goes with editing. With a keen eye, ear, and heart, I’m always looking to make each sentence the best it can be, the most sparkling version of its highest form. In the context of business, such writing leads to “easeful selling.”
One guideline I’ve used for over 7 years to ensure my editing is razor-sharp, is the idea, “Keep it simple.”
Keep it so simple, that even a 5th grader could understand what you’re saying.
Now I get it… sometimes you have complicated, sophisticated ideas you want to express to grown adults. And the thought of writing at 5th grade reading level sounds silly.
But keep in mind, the harder your writing is to read and understand, the less beneficial this will be for your business overall.
Fact is, customers today are busy, they have families, they have a million things on their mind, and they don’t necessarily want to expend effort deciphering and decoding what you’re saying (unless you’re CS Lewis).
Keep it short, sweet, simple, and readable.
Use simple language.
(A great way to do this is to “Write Like You Talk,” which I cover in my book, The Anti-Marketing Manifesto: How to Sell Without Being a Sellout.)
A tool for measuring your writing
If you want to know the simplicity level of your writing, you can use this handy tool that measures your writing’s readability score. Pop your text into the Readable app, and it will give you a “grade.”
The only number or score I ever look at is the “Flesch-Kincaid Grade Level,” where the lower the number, the better. For example, a score of 1 to 1.9 would indicate that a first grade reading level is required to understand your writing. A score between 8 and 8.9 shows that an 8th grade reading level would be required to understand your writing. (More on how the Flesch-Kincaid Grade Level works here.)
I aim to achieve a 5 or lower, which means a 5th grader and anyone with a higher level of education could understand the writing. In most cases, this is like “aiming for the stars, but hitting the moon.”
It doesn’t always happen. But the goal keeps my editing on the right track.
If an article is complex, and I achieve a 7th grade reading level, I’ll take that as a win.
Anything above 10 is veering dangerously into “college-level, convoluted, overly intellectual” territory that the average customer won’t have the time or desire to decode… while their two kids are vying for their attention, their dog needs to be let out, and their cell phone battery is about to die.
When should you use simple writing?
Always use simple writing for email, ads, and any sale copy you write. Most people read email on their phone, and email is where most of the sales are made.
For blogs and books, feel free to have more intellectual or advanced writing.
(I just checked the score on this article and got a 7.7 — an A. Not bad. I’ll take it.)