An unexpected gift

Practical Perfection messageThis week I received a copy of Kelly Exeter’s latest book, “Practical Perfection”. It’s always exciting to see someone’s words transformed into a physical book. And the fact I got to edit those words makes it even more special.

It’s a beautiful book, and I can’t wait to read it again. Only this time I’ll get to read it on the couch with a cup of coffee instead of hunched over a keyboard. (Okay, not exactly hunched. Bet certainly not as relaxed as I’ll be on the couch.)

But I have flicked through it, and here’s what I found on the Acknowledgements page:

“To Bill Harper, my editor—it is always such a relief to place a manuscript in your hands and know it’s going to come back 100 times better.”

I love editing, and being able to do it for a living is rewarding enough. But when the author goes out of their way to thank me it feels even more special.

Which is why I was absolutely over the moon when I saw what Kelly wrote on the inside of the copy she sent me.

Thank you, Kelly! And I can’t wait to work on your next book.


I can finally tell you about my latest editing project

My latest editing project: "Practical Perfection" by Kelly ExeterHaving wanted to tell you for what seems like ages, I can finally talk about my latest editing project.

Kelly Exeter’s new book, “Practical Perfection“, is finally available for pre-order.

Well done, Kelly. It really is a fantastic book. And I can’t wait to get a copy for myself so I can read it again.


Some very kind words from a client

"The Entrepreneurial Way" by Paul BreenI was fortunate enough to be the edit of Paul Breen’s new book, “The Entrepreneurial Way”. (And I’m proud to say I just typed “Entrepreneurial” without screwing it up.)

And now I have my very own copy to add to the collection of other books I’ve edited.

But what makes my copy even better is what Paul wrote on the inside.

Some kind words from Paul...
Congratulations on the book, Paul. And it was a pleasure working with you.


A rubbish blog post for a great looking site

For those of you who like reading something a little different, here’s another blog post I wrote for Brizzy Rubbish Removals.

And congratulations to Alicia Laing at Creative Mode on the redesign. It looks fantastic.


Another dose of humour (hopefully not a fatal one)

Once again I’ve had the chance to add some humour to a blog post. Here’s the latest piece I’ve written for Home Appliance Rentals.

If I could write this kind of stuff all the time I’d be a very happy man.


How statistics can make you a better writer

I’ve never been much of a numbers person.

At university I barely survived maths, totally sucked at accounting, and wasn’t much better at economics. And despite working at a statistical agency for 20 years I still have no idea how to work out standard deviation. (Or any other deviation for that matter.)

So for years I resisted Microsoft Word’s “Readability Statistics” option. The only information I found useful was the word count, which I could get another way. After all, how can a computer possibly calculate how “readable” something is?

Pretty well, it turns out.

These days I use it all the time. Not while I’m writing, because the last thing I want is to interrupt the flow of words. (If you can call it that. Sometimes it feels more like a trickle.)

But when I start editing, either my own words or someone else’s, the first thing I do is bring up the numbers. And I check them throughout the editing process to make sure I’m on the right track.

No, they don’t turn me into Hemingway (or even a bad imitation of him). But nine times out of ten they help me improve my writing.

And they can improve your writing as well. Here’s how.


Writing by numbers

First of all, ignore the Counts section. The only remotely useful number there is the word count, and unless your editor has given you one I wouldn’t worry about it. As I said in my last blog post, there’s more to length than just the number of words.

The Averages section is where it gets interesting.

One piece of writing advice I’ll always remember comes from Stephen King: one idea per sentence, one idea per paragraph. And the next two numbers help you follow that advice.

If the Sentences per Paragraph figure is high, you may be trying to cram more than one idea into a paragraph. (For me, anything above three is a warning sign. Remember, we’re talking averages here.) If you see a paragraph that looks long, see if you can split it. Not only will it be more logical, the extra white space will make it easier to read.

It’s the same with the Words per Sentence figure. If it’s too high (anything above 15 for me), you may have a killer sentences that includes everything but the kitchen sink. (The worst I’ve ever seen was 83 words long, with no punctuation other than the full stop at the end.)

That doesn’t mean you have to make every sentence short. Some sentences need to be longer than others. (My ‘kitchen sink’ sentence is 22 words—seven words longer than my preferred average.) But if the average is high you may well have some monsters that need slaying—or at least splitting/shortening.

The Characters per Word figure is all about word choice. A high number here could mean you’ve chosen complicated words instead of simple ones. And my last blog post explains why complicated words are a bad idea.

Of course, in some cases this number will be high for good reason. If you’re writing for a specialised industry, you may have to use specific terms that have no simple equivalent. But if you’re writing for a general audience, try to keep it below five.

And finally we get to the Readability section.

Remember when your English teacher taught you about sentences being active (“The boy threw the ball”) or passive (“The ball was thrown by the boy”)? In nearly every case, active sentences are better than passive ones. And this number will tell you what percentage of your sentences are in passive voice.

Now don’t panic if it isn’t zero. As much as you’d like your sentences to be active, sometimes they have to be passive to make sense. But if it’s any more than 30% I’d start worrying. (Personally I aim for less than 10%.)

I’m not even going to try explaining the mathematics behind the Flesch Reading Ease and Flesch-Kincaid Grade Level figures. All you really need to know is you want the first to be high (70-100) and the second to be low (5-8).


Lies, damn lies and statistics

As you can see, the readability statistics aren’t so scary after all. And they can help you improve your writing.

But just because the numbers are good doesn’t mean your writing is (and vice-versa). Use them as a guide, not a blueprint.

Happy editing!

(And if you’re wondering how this post scores, the numbers are in the graphic.)


Size matters (but not like you think it does)

What’s better—long or short?

It’s a topic copywriters love debating, especially over drinks. (We don’t get together very often, so when we do we make the most of it.)

Some will say it needs to be short to meet the needs of today’s “I don’t have time / I have the attention span of a goldfish” generation. And others will say unless it has enough information it’s just a waste of the reader’s (and the writer’s) time.

So who’s right?

Well, they both are. Your copy needs enough information to satisfy your reader. But if they have battle their way through to get it, they’ll give up and start watching people hurt themselves on YouTube.

But here’s the thing: When we talk about copy being long or short, we tend to focus on the word count.

And that’s not always the best way to measure it.


It’s about time

As writers, words are not just the tools of our trade. They’re also our unit of measurement, and even our currency. They define the work to be done (“Give me 500 words on air pollution”), how much we get paid (“We pay five cents a word”), and our productivity (“I wrote another two thousand words today, and only half of them were swear words”).

Even when I’m editing I like to keep track of how many words I’ve knocked out. It’s my way of measuring how I’m doing, and how long my sinister laugh should go for.

But most readers don’t care how many words you use. Okay, they might if you’ve written the sequel to War and Peace. What they’re more concerned about it is how long it will take to read, and if it’s worth their time to do so.

We measure by the word. They measure by the minute.

And the two don’t always correlate.


Another way to measure

Check out these two sentences:

  • The boy threw the ball.
  • The descendant projected the object.

As you can see, they’re both five words long. But the second sentence is much longer, and takes a lot longer to get through.

And before you say, “No-one would ever write it like that”, let me tell you a lot of people still do. They think writing needs to sound important, and so they open up the thesaurus and drag out every complicated word they can find.  (I spent ten years dealing with sentences like this—and much, much worse.)

Does this mean we have to write everything like a Dick and Jane story? (“See Jane Run. See Dick laugh. See Jane sue.”) No. Word length has little to do with it. “Through” is a lot longer than “to”, but they take almost the same time to read.

It’s all about the syllables.

Let’s look at those two sentences again. The first sentence has five (1+1+1+1+1) syllables, while the second one has ten (1+3+3+1+2)—twice as many.

And I hazard a guess that second sentence would take twice as long to read. (How long it would take to understand is another story.)


Keep it simple

So, should you now start counting the syllables in every sentence you write? Well, not unless you’re really bored. And while I think Microsoft Word’s readability statistics can be quite useful, you don’t really need them either.

Instead, just read what you’ve written—out loud if you want a seat to yourself on the bus. And wherever you see a word that’s complicated, see if you’d be better off with a simpler one.

So instead of “commence”, try “start”.

Instead of “discontinue”, try “stop”.

And instead of “projected”, try “threw” (or “hurled”, “tossed” or whatever the boy did with that damn ball).

You don’t need to change every word. The last thing you want is to destroy your writing’s natural rhythm. And some words have no simple alternative, or at least nothing as precise.

But don’t choose a complicated word because it sounds important. Your message is what’s important, and you can deliver it just as well with simple words.

And don’t think that you’re “dumbing down” your message and cheating your reader, either. You’re not only making it clearer for them, you’re saving them time.

And they will appreciate it.