How to edit, part 4

Reading time: 2.5 minutes

Did you read last week’s excerpt from William Zinsser’s book? If not, I provide a link to it, below. Most importantly, I give you the grade level at which it was written. Read on for the final part to my series on how to edit like a professional.

In last week’s column I asked you to evaluate an excerpt from one of my all-time favourite writing books, On Writing Well, by William Zinsser.

As I said, last week, I urge all non-fiction writers outside of academia to write for a grade 9 level. On hearing this advice, some writers become alarmed, imagining I’m asking them to “dumb down” their work. But you can’t call Zinsser dumb about writing. His text is clearly the work a sensitive, interesting writer. Yet its level, according to the Flesch scale measured by Word, is a mere grade 6.9.

His text is not only elegant, it’s also easy to read. How does he pull this off? I see five reasons:

1) Most of the words he uses are short. Very short. Readability stats show he has 314 words and the average number of syllables is only 1.43. Look at all those very short words. . . Yikes! But in addition to the plethora of short snappers, he uses a few longer words: simplicity, sophisticated, identity, essential, principles, rickety.

2) He uses strong verbs and verb phrases. In English, a good verb is like a power-lifter — it will carry an otherwise unwieldy sentence with ease. Here are some of the fine ones Zinsser chooses: lie in ambush, strip, point, cut, howl, saw, bevel, collapse, fall apart. If you want to do one thing to improve your writing, scour and polish your verbs.

3) He varies his sentence length. Writers should aim for an average sentence length of about 14 words. Zinsser doesn’t quite achieve that — only seven of these sentences are 14 words or less. But his average is still good — 18 words per sentence — and his range is outstanding. His shortest sentence? A mere seven words. His longest? Some 28 words! Remember, an average is calculated by adding together the total values of the entire group and then dividing by the number of values in the category. You don’t ever want a passage with just 14-word or even just 18-word sentences. You always want some sentences that are much longer and some that are much shorter. It’s the range that helps make writing readable.

4) He makes ample use of “bridges” or connectors. These are words or phrases that pull you from one sentence to the next. Here are a few examples: first (readers will want to know what’s second), then (ditto), the point is (what’s the point?) after that (what happens?).

5) He uses a simple and concrete metaphor. I love the way he compares writing to carpentry. As I read that last paragraph, I can practically hear the saw at work and smell the cedar in the air. I get an extraordinarily strong image while reading and this, in turn, makes me a more avid reader.

By the way, readability statistics aren’t actually capable of measuring those last two points. The statistics measure what computers calibrate most easily — word, sentence and paragraph length.

Eerily enough, however, writers who do well in these categories also seem most able to perform the more difficult manoeuvres — such as constructing excellent bridges and imagining concrete metaphors — outlined in points 4 and 5.

Tracking your readability is one of the keys to successful writing. For more on this topic, type readability statistics in your Help menu for Word, use the readability website or go to my book, pages 75 to 78.


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