Jon Maxim, Freelance copywriter

Hippopotomonstro sesquippedaliophobia

copywriting tips: use shorter words

I remember school. Quite fondly, actually.

My school was unusual. Founded in 1552, with a uniform that dates back over 450 years (and still worn today).

Wonderful teachers and education.

And I remember the essays. Lots of essays.

I always left them to the last minute. Burning the midnight oil.

Of course, my main concern was hitting the number of words required. If they asked for 1,500 words, they got 1,573 – just to show my enthusiasm and sheer breadth of knowledge. Genius at work.

Once I’d hit the word count, I looked for the biggest words I could.

Out came the thesaurus.

Why use an abbreviated pronouncement when an elongated expression would suffice.

That would prove how clever I was, right?

It turns out that, in the real world, the opposite is true.

More is less

Fingers closing more is less

In 2006, Daniel Oppenheimer published a study on the impact of long words on the reader. Cheekily entitled ‘Consequences of Erudite Vernacular Utilized Irrespective of Necessity’, he found that the bigger the words, the less intelligent you think the writer is.

Hang on. Less intelligent.

Yup. Big words make you look dumb.

As Einstein once said: ‘If you can’t explain it simply, you don’t understand it well enough’.

All that education (and it continued into university) training me to write big words. D’oh!

In the real world, big words strike fear into the reader.

Hence the title of this blog: hippopotomonstrosesquippedaliophobia means a ‘fear of long words’.

If you’re writing to engage a reader, persuade them to act, get their attention, shorter is better.

Short sentences.

And short words.

In the Flesch

School classroom

In 1975, Rudolf Flesch and J. Peter Kincaid developed the Flesch-Kincaid Grade Level. A formula that measures how easy a piece of writing is to read.

It’s based on the grade of school you would have to be in to understand the text. So, a Flesch-Kincaid grade level of 10 would be the literacy equivalent of a student aged 16.

In fact, a grade score level of 10 means 80% of the population would struggle to understand it.

Not what you want for an ad, blog, eDM or website.

The Australian government’s own writing guide recommends that you ‘aim for age 9 (between US Grade 3 and Grade 4)’.

A staggering 50% of Americans can only read at a grade 8 level.

You can measure your score at the Credosity website – developed by Magneto, who – I should declare – I work with. No commercial interest in it, though. Just love this free tool.

(Oh: Credosity scored this article at a grade level of 4.5: a 9-year-old could understand it).

The point is, the harder you make your copy (or text) to read, the less likely people are to read it. We’re inundated with messages. According to SuperProfile, we see 2,904 media messages a day.

That’s a lot of clutter.

You want to be read? Stand out? Engage the reader? Make it simpler to read.

Four letter words

Pencil sharpener and shavings

The Flesch-Kincaid formula is pretty complicated. But at its simplest, it’s about the number of words per sentence and number of syllables per word.

So, one way to reduce the grade level, and make your writing more accessible, is to reduce the number of syllables.

Here’s how I do it.

First, write out exactly what you want to say. Don’t hold back. Don’t worry about the number of words, or length of words. Just get it down.

There’s nothing worse than a blank page, so fill it up.

Then I reduce the number of words (you can read my process for that, here).

Next, I look at the words left on the page. Can I change any of them to shorter, one-syllable words?

Or, as I slightly-tongue-in-cheekily describe them: four letter words. Just not the rude ones.

So, take the phrase ‘This is your opportunity to donate’.

I’d change the word opportunity to ‘chance‘ (one syllable).

‘This is your chance to donate’.

Then ‘time‘.

Giving me: ‘This is your time to donate’.

My grade level drops from 8.4 to just 0.5.

Wow: a kindergarten student could understand it.

Or a busy reader with nanoseconds of attention.

Burst the syllabubbles

Everywhere I look, I see websites packed with big words. Too many syllables.

A major bank promising ‘… support from the very beginning.’

Why not ‘… support from the very start.’?

An online travel site offering ‘… enormous savings!’.

Why not ‘… huge savings!’.

A software company warning about ‘… fraudulent emails’.

Why not ‘… fake emails’.

It’s everywhere. Your job is to attack them. Chop them down. Be brutal.

As William Faulkner once said: ‘Kill all your darlings’.

Don’t fall in love with those big words: slash and burn.

From a hippo to a gazelle

Chess strategy challenge

After you’ve written what you want to say, take a moment.

Look for any words longer than one syllable. Is there a shorter alternative (two syllables ‘option’, one syllable ‘choice’)?

There always is. Just keep digging.

Sometimes, that shorter word will need a re-work of the sentence. That’s OK. It’s a continuous (‘on-going’, ‘endless’) process.

And if I can’t get it to one syllable, I’ll compromise with two. Better two syllables than three. Better three, than four.

Your goal? Make it super easy for the reader. That, after all, is our ultimate task.

Joy, not fear. Engagement, not barriers.

Turn your words from a hippo to a light-on-its-feet gazelle.


Image sources: Pixabay

Article first published November 2018, updated July 2019


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Jon Maxim

Jon is a multi-award winning copywriter. For over 30 years, he’s helped clients – large and small – develop engaging concepts, content and copy. For 25 of those years, he’s been teaching people how to do it themselves. His courses on copywriting, ideation and presentation skills are highly sought-after and highly effective. Jon lives in Sydney, Australia: but is often found on a plane, heading to where he’s most needed.