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3 keys to readable white papers

Many white papers are just too hard to read.

Fortunately, three simple techniques can make any draft easier to read.

Use shorter words. Use shorter sentences. And use shorter paragraphs.

In other words, three keys can make your next white paper easier to read:

  • Delete to eliminate long words
  • Period (.) to break up long sentences
  • Enter to shorten long paragraphs

3 keys to a readable white paper

What is readability?

No one can say whether a white paper is clear or well-written, right? It’s all a subjective judgment call, right?

Well, yes and no.

Over the past 50+ years, many formulas have been developed and tested to help measure the readability of English text.

These formulas can’t tell if your sentences make any sense, or if your tone suits your target audience, or if your white paper will generate any leads.

But they can give you a good idea about how easy your draft is to read.

Getting readability stats from Word

Did you know that a perfectly good readability checker is built into Word?

It’s turned off by default, since not everyone wants to bother with it.

But you can easily turn it on and use it to measure your writing, free.

To turn on Word’s readability checker:

  1. Select Word > Preferences.
  2. Select Spelling & Grammar.
  3. On the Spelling & Grammar window, check Show Readability Statistics.

From then on, whenever you want to see the readability of your current file, select Spelling & Grammar on the Review tab.

As soon as the spelling and grammar check is done, the readability stats appear in a little windows.

These look something like the samples shown below, although these screenshots were taken from an older version of Word.

Click to view full size Click to view full size
Readability of original draft

Readability after revisions

One white paper, before and after

Recently, a client came to me with a white paper draft that most reviewers thought was too hard for their target audience to read.

So I revised it, capturing Word’s readability stats before and after my revisions.

The readability scores of the original are shown on the left above, with the scores for my revision on the right.

Let’s take a look at what happened.

Under Counts, notice that the total number of words didn’t change much: Down by 2% from 2,728 to 2,692.

But the number of paragraphs and sentences shot up as I shortened them:

  • Paragraphs doubled from 46 to 93, showing the Enter key in action.
  • Sentences jumped from 95 to 138, thanks to the trusty period (.) key.

Under Averages the average number of words per sentence fell dramatically from 27.2 to 17.3.

See how those revisions paid off

In the original, Passive Sentences (the fewer, the better) at 20% is not terrible.

Most writers use 15 to 20% passive voice. In fact, it can sound a little unnatural to go any lower.

But after revising, this metric came down to 14% or almost a third better.

The Flesch Reading Ease (the higher, the better) improved by more than a third from 35.4 to 49.6.

And the Flesch-Kincaid Grade Level (the lower, the better) came down from advanced college reading level far harder than the Harvard Law Review (14.8) to high-school (10.5).

Best of all, the client said my revision was perfect for their audience.

Some actual sentences

Statistics are one thing, but looking at some actual sentences shows how I boosted the readability.

Here’s some original text:

Acme’s experience indicates that higher-priced RTB impressions, where our models indicate a higher expected influence in driving advertisers’ goals, were up to 100 times more effective in influencing consumer behavior than lower-priced ones, a pattern that persists across industries, customers and campaigns. This implies that counter to conventional wisdom, in an RTB world, rather than creating value for the advertiser, a media buyer focused too intently on CPM may actually erode it.

(74 words in 2 sentences)

And here’s how I revised it:

Acme has found that paying more for a higher-quality impression through RTB can be up to 100 times more effective at influencing consumer behavior. This pattern applies across industries, customers, and campaigns. This means that in today’s real-time advertising world, focusing too much on CPM can actually limit an advertiser’s results.

(53 words in 3 sentences)

You can get the same kind of results if you focus some energy on rewriting your early drafts for better readability.

Just use those three all-important keys as you write your next white paper: Backspace, period (.) and Enter.

And remember: No one will ever complain that a white paper you wrote is “too easy to understand.”

 


This article is a brief excerpt from White Papers for Dummies by Gordon Graham.

With dozens of tips and best practices for planning, producing, and promoting effective white papers, White Papers for Dummies is the most comprehensive guide to white papers every published.3 keys to readable white papers

About Gordon Graham

Author of close to 300 white papers on everything from choosing enterprise software to designing virtual worlds for kids, for clients from Silicon Valley to Switzerland, from tiny startups to 3M, Google and Verizon. Also wrote White Papers for Dummies which earned 50 5-star ratings on Amazon. And Gordon was recently named 2019 Copywriter of the Year by AWAI.

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