Did you devote years of your life trying to sound “smart” and “professional,” like a textbook?
I taught myself how to write in third-person language.
I called myself “The researcher…” instead of plain ol’ “I…”
I replaced my everyday words with “smart” synonyms. I literally paged through my GRE study guide. I tried to use as many GRE vocab words as possible.
Then, I started working in the real world.
My bosses rolled their eyes.
Another one from an academic background, they sighed. We’ll have to re-train her from scratch.
I panicked. But if I wasn’t supposed to sound like a textbook, what was I supposed to sound like???
It took me years to grasp that simple concept. I’m a person. It’s okay to sound like a person.
Nowadays, I make a living by teaching humans how to sound like humans again.
Before/After Makeovers for Common Methodology Sentences
Here are some before/after examples in case you’re still on the textbook-back-to-human journey like I was.
Please please please use these transformations in your technical reports.
I’m not so worried about peer-reviewed journal articles — that’s another battle for another day. Today, I’m focusing on your non-journal writing scenarios.
Who Designed the Survey?
- Before: A survey instrument was designed by the ABC Research Company working under the supervision of the DEF Foundation staff, and key department heads of GHI Agencies.
- After: The ABC Research Company, DEF Foundation, and GHI Agency teamed up to collect data.
Who Responded to the Survey?
- Before: A series of survey instruments were developed to administer among students in the ABC programs.
- After: We designed surveys to collect information from students in the ABC programs.
How Many Responses?
- Before: A total of 14 programs participated in the survey.
- After: Fourteen programs participated in the survey. (Remove redundancies like “a total of.”)
- Before: A total of 144 programs participated in the survey.
- After: We collected surveys from 144 programs. (Because writing out numbers at the beginning of a sentence is the worst.)
When Did You Collect Data?
- Before: Initial surveys were launched on March 7, 2018 with fieldwork continuing to accommodate the schedules of participating institutions. Data collection was cut off on April 25 to begin data processing. A total of 789 surveys were attempted, with a total of 654 surveys completed sufficiently to include in the final tabulated results. A total of 123 individuals entered their contact information for a drawing.
- After: We collected surveys in Spring 2018. We tried to collect data from 789 people, and 654 people participated, for a response rate of 83 percent—one of the highest response rates we’ve ever had on a survey.
Referencing the Just-in-Case Tables
- Before: We are providing detailed data tables with this report that shows the responses by institution.
- After: Want to view responses by institution? View the appendix on page 31.
Demographics on Respondents
- Before: Overall, undergraduate students comprise 65% of total responses and graduate students comprise the remaining 35%.
- After: Two out of three responses (65%) were from undergraduate students. The rest were from graduate students. (Getting rid of the word “comprise.)
Describing the Survey’s Topics
- Before: One way the important resources and individuals specifically helped at least two-thirds of students were giving them a good sense for the kinds of careers they could pursue with a degree.
- After: We asked students which resources were most useful. Two out of three students said that others had given them a sense of career options that they could pursue with their degree.
Summarizing the Survey’s Findings
- Before: The largest mean share of the total cost are paid for by the student or their family, who account for 50% of the total cost. Student loans are used to cover a mean of 20% of the total cost, and scholarships or other financial aid pay for 30%.
- After: For the typical student, 50% of their costs are covered by the student and their family, 30% are covered by scholarships or financial aid, and 20% are covered by student loans. (Getting rid of awkward language like “mean share” and “account for.”)
Objectively Scoring the Before/After Translations
In my gut, I know the translations are easier to read.
Let’s objectively test them.
Before: 12.1 Grade Level
The human-trying-to-sound-like-a-textbook wrote at a 12.1 grade level.
Okay, that’s not the worst I’ve seen.
The highest I’ve seen is a 36 (from a team of Ph.D. psychologists).
Can you beat a 36??? Let me know if you find any contenders. I’d love to (try to) read it.
(This screenshot is from Readable.com, which used to be a free reading level checker. It looks like they require payments nowadays, but there are plenty of free- and low-cost tools. Like good ol’ Microsoft Word! Comment below if you’ve got a favorite.)
After: 9.3 Grade Level
I personally aim for grade level 6 to 8—throughout my blog posts, books, and even contracts.
I didn’t quite reach my goal. But a 9.3 isn’t horrible, either. The Readable site gives this an “A!”
Higher is not better. Lower is better.
You are a human who’s writing for humans. You are not a textbook. You are not a textbook. You are not a textbook. You are not a textbook.
How to Lower the Reading Grade Level
Try one (or more!) of these techniques:
- Shorten the sentences. An easy fix is to look at your longest sentences. Replace your commas with periods (i.e., break one long sentence into two shorter sentences).
- Shorten the paragraphs. Press the “enter” key lots and lots and lots.
- Use first-person language. Adjust the sentence structure. Change “A survey was administered…” to “The agency administered a survey” or “We administered a survey.”
- Find synonyms. This is the hardest one for me. What’s an accurate, understandable translation of calculations like standard deviation or confidence interval??? I used to pack those terms into the report’s body and hope for the best. What happened? Lots of Dusty Shelf Reports! Nowadays, I follow the 30-3-1 Approach to Reporting. I keep the methods section in the report’s body as short as possible, and I tell readers to check the appendix for more info. I don’t care if the appendix is packed with jargon. Only the technical readers are going to look there anyway, and they’ll understand the jargon.
Upload one of your own paragraphs into your favorite reading level checker.
How did you score?
And more importantly, how can you adjust the language to lower the reading level??