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Last updated: October 2017
People don’t buy what they don’t understand. This article contains some awesome techniques for making your copy readable.
To make your writing easy to understand, there’s one principle above all others that you should understand: You should be constantly aware of the reader’s memory buffer. As a person reads, his or her brain continuously processes and interprets the incoming words. In doing so, it loads the words into a short-term memory—a buffer—and then discharges them when the meaning has been understood.
The buffer memory is surprisingly small—it struggles to hold more than about fifteen words. Fortunately, most sentences contain frequent resolution points, at which the meaning can be understood and the buffer unloaded. In the following examples, we have labeled with pipes (“|”) the main resolution points—the points at which the words in the buffer can be interpreted. We have also labeled, in ever-fading shades of green, the points at which the short-term memory has gone too long without a break.
Dance music aficionados| can argue interminably over| which of the legendary singles Frankie Knuckles produced in the late 80s—singles, you can say without fear of contradiction, that played a part in changing the face of pop music forever—is the best.|
The pipes feel like points at which your brain gets to “take a breath.” When you read the faded words, you may get the same panicky feeling that you get when you are diving underwater and you are starting to run out of oxygen. By the time you reach the final pipe, your short-term memory is gasping for breath.
The following text contains another example of the same phenomenon:
To pass the Bechdel test,| a movie must have at least two female characters| who are named| and talk to each other| about something other than a man.|
Pulp Fiction, all three movies of the original Star Wars trilogy, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part II, The Social Network, Avatar, and Finding Nemo reportedly fail the test.|
To understand where those resolution points (the pipes) lie, you could study linguistic parse trees—in which case we’d highly recommend Steven Pinker’s awesome book The Language Instinct. However, linguistic parse trees aren’t easy to learn. Fortunately, there’s an easier way. With a few minutes’ practice, you’ll discover that you can sense the resolution points just by reading a sentence word by word and noting the points at which your understanding resolves.
(Incidentally, dependency length is the technical term for the number of words during which the reader needs to “hold their breath” before they can reach a resolution point.)
If you aim to go easy on your readers’ memory buffers, several priceless rules of thumb emerge:
You can enforce resolution points by keeping sentences short. A period is a resolution point.
But as you become more sophisticated, you’ll discover that certain types of long sentences are fine, provided they have what’s called right-branched clauses, like this one, or this one, or this one.
In each sentence, minimize the distance between the start of the subject and the end of the verb. In the example above, we mentioned the following sentence:
Pulp Fiction, all three movies of the original Star Wars trilogy, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part II, The Social Network, Avatar, and Finding Nemo reportedly fail the test.
You could improve it by moving the verb, fail, to the start:
The following movies reportedly fail the test: The original Star Wars trilogy, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part II, Pulp Fiction, The Social Network, Avatar, and Finding Nemo.
Strunk and White advised writers to “Omit needless words.” The reason is buffer memory. Needless words don’t just waste ink and time; they make ideas too big to fit in a buffer memory.
Replace nominalizations with action verbs. Nominalizations are where verbs are stated as though they were nouns. So, for example,
Nominalizations are bad for brevity. They require a (usually meaningless) verb, like had, plus prepositions to link them:
You can spot nominalizations by looking for verbs that aren’t really describing what’s happening (like had, held, and carried in the sentences above). The verb to be is the most common culprit. If you ever see to be (or its variations like is and was), you’ll often find a more action-ey verb hiding nearby, maybe inside a noun. Ask yourself, what’s actually being done here? For example, when you see the following sentence:
My recommendation is to carry out an improvement initiative on the website
the word is indicates that the verb is hiding elsewhere. In this case, it’s in the word improvement. You should rewrite the sentence as follows:
I recommend we improve the website.
The human brain is great at understanding sentences that have the following structure:
The woman threw the ball.
The woman threw the ball to the dog.
In other words…
A living entity does something (maybe to something else, preferably another living entity).
Next time you are struggling to write a sentence, try writing it in that format. For most conversion copywriting, the living entities should be you (the reader) and we (the company).
When you first try it, you’ll feel like it isn’t going to work. You’ll be surprised how often it does.
The following tips can improve any sentence:
If you enjoyed this article, you’ll like our guide to The 11 best resources for improving your writing.
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