Hey there Rainmaker, let’s talk about what it takes to write really good, engaging, compelling copy…
But we’re going to get there by way of how NOT to write really good, engaging, compelling copy…
In fact, let’s go all the way back to my high school and then college days.
I’ve been into writing for a long time. As long as I can remember.
It’s probably one of my gifts. But it’s also an interest. And because it’s an interest, it’s something I’ve developed.
Now, when you are trying to develop your writing ability in a school setting, you have to listen to what the teacher wants.
And so throughout high school and into college, I paid attention to what teachers liked.
And in academics, mostly that’s heady stuff.
Long, complex sentences that include big ideas — often ideas nested inside of ideas — that forced sentences to run long, paragraphs to run long, and writing to become a spaghetti bowl of complexity.
In fact, it seems like the harder it is to read academic writing, the better a grade it gets!
And so, by the time I was nearing the end of my undergrad in Psychology, I was writing 14-page papers with paragraphs that spanned entire pages. Sentences that spanned half a paragraph. And using individual words that took up half a line of text.
I actually knew what I was talking about.
I was just using some of the most complex language I could come up with to explain it.
Good news for me in school was that teachers ate it up.
It seems to be a virus of the academic mind that the thicker the language, the more brilliant the writer.
Actually, the opposite is true.
But that’s the behavior they rewarded.
And so I used to be proud of the fact that my Flesch–Kincaid readability score was 19. For those of you who aren’t familiar with this measure, that means that you’d have to be in your 19th year of schooling (or at an equivalent level of reading ability) for the damn writing to make sense.
Here’s what’s really going on when you write in thick, academic prose…
Really, you’re being a pompous a**.
You’re saying, “My ideas are too good for the common people. I am above you, if you can’t read this easily.”
But what’s (usually) really going on is not that you have good ideas, or that you’re actually superior to anybody.
What’s really going on is that you don’t have clarity of thought. So you disguise your poor thinking with thick language, and hope nobody notices.
What’s really going on is that you are insecure about your thinking and your ideas. So you make them so hard to interpret in your writing, that if anyone disagrees you can blame it on their misunderstanding.
There is no genius in making things complex.
Any idiot can take the simple and make it too complex for anybody to understand.
True genius comes from making the complex simple.
From taking something that seems out there, and presenting it in a way that’s incredibly easy for the average person to understand.
The beauty in simple writing is that it actually moves people…
My mentor-from-a-distance and occasional reader Mark Ford (aka. Michael Masterson) did a study once.
His company employs dozens, maybe over a hundred editors of paid circulation newsletters.
He ignored the sales copy used to sell the newsletters. Instead, he looked at the content of the letters themselves. He ran it all through a Flesch–Kincaid (FK) analyzer, and got an average FK score for all his editors.
He then ranked the editors by FK score, with the lowest (most-readable) at the top, and the highest (least-readable) at the bottom.
In another column, he put the average paid renewal rate of the editors’ newsletters.
And he compared FK score to renewal rates.
What he found is a huge win for simple writing. The editors with the lowest FK scores (who wrote the most readable text) had the highest paid renewal rates. And the editors with the highest FK scores (whose text was least readable) had the lowest paid renewal rates.
The correlation was very high.
And these are topics like health and investing. Typically focused on a more educated audience. Sometimes, very complex topics or ideas.
This was a very important discovery. Because in the paid newsletter business, renewals are very important. Often a new subscriber will be gained at break even, or at a loss. There’s no profit in the first year’s subscription. The second year and beyond are where all the profit come from. Renewal rates will almost always make the difference between a publication that lasts, and one that’s folded.
And the discovery was that by maintaining a low FK score, the renewals went up significantly.
Many of these writers were writing about the same topics. Just those who explained the complex in a simple way were creating more loyal readers. And more profits.
Why simple is better…
When you write in a complex way, you’re really saying “look at me.” By writing in language that requires interpretation, you’re taking a position of superiority. You’re telling your reader that your prose is more important than them getting your message.
This is ego-driven writing.
When you write simply, you’re putting your reader at the center. You’re becoming invisible as the “writer” and focusing on communication. You’re telling your reader — subconsciously — that it’s more important for them to get the message, than to pay attention to your writing.
This is ego-less writing.
Or, more accurately, writing where the writer’s ego (sense of self) is strong enough that it can let the reader be the center of attention.
Simple writing tells the reader you respect them. You respect their time. You respect their desire to understand the message. You respect the need to communicate clearly to them.
Making it hard for them to read and interpret your message does NOT endear them to you. Making it easy does endear them to you.
Follow the FK…
What Mark ended up discovering was that writing with an FK score of around 7 was particularly effective.
What this means is that anyone beyond grade school should have a reasonable ability to read and understand it.
But what it also means is that anyone who is well beyond 7th grade in their reading ability will find it really easy to read and comprehend.
Which means they’ll read it faster and easier, and understand it faster and easier.
The focus won’t be you. Even if it’s about you. Your ideas, your stories, etc. You — as “the writer” — will be invisible. It will be about the reader.
And it doesn’t matter if we’re talking one-on-one, through writing, through media, whatever.
This clear, simple, direct communication is what generates the best results!
Oh, and I just threw this post into Perry Marshall’s FK and readability tool and the score on this post — unedited — is 7. I guess I’ve come along way toward simple writing since my 19 scores in college!
Yours for bigger breakthroughs,
Simply the Rainmaker, Breakthrough Marketing Secrets