Famous Last Words: Always Think of Your Reader

What could Lasswell have brought to the party instead of a rehash? I probably would have called this a revolutionary new merchandising concept and a fascinating narrative. I would have given the reader a quick background in marketing: the Greek agora, barter, door-to-door, off-the-page-advertising, retail, direct mail, M-L-M, midway pitchmen, TV etc. Something—anything—to enhance the reading experience.

In terms of “WRITE IT RIGHT,” Lasswell is a writer who breaks the basic rules and doesn’t give a damn about the reader. For example, from a post by colleague Scott Huch:

As an aspiring, young direct mail copywriter in the early 1990s, I clipped an item from my local newspaper. It has been taped to my desk—right next to my computer—ever since. It is now tattered and yellow. But I keep it there as a reminder anytime I’m writing. It says: “Tests have shown that a sentence of eight words is very easy to read; of 11 words, easy; of 14 words, fairly easy; of 17 words, standard; of 21 words, fairly difficult; of 25 words, difficult; of 29 or more words, very difficult; so this sentence with 54 words, counting numbers, is ranked impossible.

From Mark Lasswell’s review is this mind-numbing 58-word sentence:

As journalist Bob Kealing recounts in “Tupperware Unsealed”—his vivid portrait of Tupperware’s origins and of the little-remembered woman behind its remarkable selling strategy—Earl Tupper spent months working with polyethylene, heating it, pressurizing it and mixing in additives, hoping to convert it into a plastic that was more flexible than the brittle styrene products then in use.

Readers First—ALWAYS
Here are a few more bits of wisdom—from me and others—on how to keep your reader front of mind:

  • Whatever you write—a review, memo, special report, letter or article—always keep the reader in mind.
  • A rehash won’t cut it. If you want to make an impression, come up with some enriching original content.
  • “Use short words, short sentences, short paragraphs.” —Andrew Byrne, copywriter
  • “[Hemingway] has never been known to use a word that might send a reader to the dictionary.” —William Faulkner
  • “Poor Faulkner. Does he really think big emotions come from big words? He thinks I don’t know the ten-dollar words. I know them all right. But there are older and simpler and better words, and those are the ones I use.” —Ernest Hemingway

Denny Hatch is a direct marketing copywriter, designer, consultant and the author of six books on marketing, “CAREER-CHANGING TAKEAWAYS” being the most recent. Visit him at dennyhatch.com, or contact him at dennyhatch@yahoo.com.

Denny Hatch is the author of six books on marketing and four novels, and is a direct marketing writer, designer and consultant. His latest book is “Write Everything Right!” Visit him at dennyhatch.com.

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  • Ben Gay III

    As always, great stuff, Denny! I always look forward to your articles.
    Note: These sentences are eights words or less!
    All the best!
    Ben Gay III
    The Closers

  • Scott M

    Mr. Hatch:

    Thank you for your column today. I must admit I’m a fan of your philosophies, and you hit on not one but two that I hold dear: Think of your reader as you write or edit, and keep sentences short and palatable.

    I was fortunate enough to have two mentors at different stages of my editing and writing career that impressed these basic premises upon me. One was Walter Doty, former editor of Sunset magazine, instrumental in making it become the "Magazine of Western Living." He impressed upon us then-young writers to "Walk in the Reader’s Shoes." It is so simple yet so accurate. Another of his gems was "Don’t be a jesuit, be a conduit." In other words, job one is to supply information, not preach to the reader.

    My second mentor was part of my life when I served as editor and writer of gardening and home-improvement guides. His name was BIll Fisher, who founded HPBooks with his wife Helen. This publishing company was based in Tucson, and it’s biggest claim to fame was publishing a book entitled Crockery Cookery. It was published at a time when no recipe or cookbooks on the subject existed. It sold more than two million copies ( I can’t remember the exact number). It launched the company and allowed it the financial means to produce entire lines of books on various how-to topics. Mr. Fisher read every galley proof of every book prior to it being published. You had better be on your editing toes when you passed your book onto him. He was ruthlessly good as an copyeditor, and commanded that sentences be no more than 12 words in length. And no semi-colons, mind you! It was our job to write and edit to an eighth grade reading level.

    Please keep up the columns that provide excellent lessons for today’s creatives. I think they need reminding of the basics that have worked and will continue to work, if only we pay attention to the person reading our words.

    Scott Millard

  • Susan

    Thanks Denny! Totally agree on short words/short sentences for marketing and certain types of books. We marketers are breaking into people’s lives trying to sell them something so we need to be thoughtful and gracious to them and make their experience as easy as possible. Short is good for them, good for us. However, there are other parts of life, and other types of writing, where stretching the mind is a challenging pleasure and a goal for many. Some long words have shades of mean that are simply missing in the short alternative words. And some complex thoughts can be best communicated in complex sentences. I just can’t imagine Jane Austen, Anthony Trollope or Leo Tolstoy writing the Rudolph Flesch way — what a loss to the world of great literature. So…short in its place, long in its place (and clarity always).

  • Marc

    Great stuff Denny! I’ll preorder your book…heck, I’ll preorder 10 copies if that’s what it takes to get it off your computer and into my hands! I want MORE!