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
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, 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 there’s a perfectly good readability checker built into Word?
Sometimes it’s turned off and hidden, because not everyone understands readability.
But you can easily turn it on and use it to measure your writing, free.
To turn on Word’s readability checker
- Select Word > Preferences.
- Select Spelling & Grammar.
You see the panel shown above, or equivalent.
- Under Grammar, click all the checkboxes.
You may as well check all the boxes to get the most out of Word’s Editor.
To check the readability of your current file
- Click the Editor icon.
- Under Insights, click Document Stats.
- In a few seconds, the readability stats appear in a little window.
One white paper, before and after
Once upon a time, 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 below on the left, with the scores for my revision on the right.
(These screenshots are from a few years ago, not in Word’s latest format.)
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 after 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, see how 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 (where 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% which was almost a third better.
The Flesch Reading Ease (where the higher, the better) improved by more than a third from 35.4 to 49.3.
And the Flesch-Kincaid Grade Level (where the lower, the better) came down four years from college level (14.8) to high school level (10.6), another significant improvement.
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 my revisions 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 yourself 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.
Originally published June 13, 2014. Last updated August 26, 2022
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 ever published.
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