This book review looks into The Art of Plain Talk by Rudolf Flesch. Sometimes books grab you. Sometimes you come across the right book at the right time and it moves you. My experience of reading this 1946 work by Rudolf Flesch was one of those moments.
Rudolf Flesch was born in Austria but moved to America and later became a citizen of that country. His life’s work revolved around being a readability expert, a writing consultant and an author. He was a vigorous proponent of plain English and this alongside his readability tests is what he is best known for.
As has happened on many occasions I believe I was directed to this book by a David Ogilvy memo. The ability to write clearly so that the masses understand is a skill that is needed by everyone, not just advertisers.
About the Book
The book begins in wonderfully simple language and continues from there.
“This is a book on plain talk. It tells you how to speak and write so that people understand what you mean.”
The first section that grabbed me was the section on sentences. There was a particularly good line that I will copy in full below.
“You may wonder why you find so many long sentences in books, magazines, and newspapers. The explanation, to the best of my knowledge, is simply that those sentences are written, not to make it easy for the reader, but to ensnare him like a fly on flypaper, or buttonhole him to attention.”
As someone who has always naturally gravitated towards short sentences this line pleased me. But I think is speaks to a broader importance to make sure that when you write, you write to educate and inspire people, not to confuse them.
Also, in the sentences section there was a breakdown of sentence length and how easy various sentence lengths are to read. It goes as follows.
- Very easy 8 or less
- Easy 11
- Fairly Easy 14
- Standard 17
- Fairly Difficult 21
- Difficult 25
- Very Difficult 29 or more
This sort of information is really important, because it allows writers to pitch their work to the correct audience. There is nothing wrong with a sentence length of 25 or more. But it is important to realise that this will be more difficult to read because of this. It is also true to say that if you are pitching your work at a mass audience that a sentence length of 17 or less is advised.
The next section that really grabbed me was the section on short cuts. I had always preferred a short and concise style of writing myself, but I found this chapter particularly stirring.
Flesch had an excellent paragraph where he succinctly gets to the bottom of what plain talk is and how brevity helps to get there.
“Plain and simple speech appeals to everyone because it indicates clear thought and honest motives. Here is the point: Anyone who is thinking clearly and honestly can express his thoughts in words which are understandable, and in very few of them. Let’s write for the reader and not for ourselves. Make the writing do what it is intended to do.”
There was one line in particular which stood out to me and it was on why some writers would fail to heed this advice.
“What is it that brings on this long-winded, heartbreaking wordiness? I have a hunch that a writer, feeling defeated in advance, gets lengthy and vague in self-defence. Then, if defeat comes, he can ascribe it to the ignorance of the people addressed.”
It is important not to give up before you have even begun. By writing in plain English you can reach more people and win more people over to your way of thinking.
Towards the end of the paragraph on short cuts Flesch makes one of his boldest statements that: “our present language must be rescued from the curse of confusion.”
What you need to know
This book review looked into The Art of Plain Talk by Rudolf Flesch. For me, this is one of the best books on writing that I have ever come across.
It includes many different ways writers can produce work in plain English. Mastering the art of plain talk necessitates doing more of some things and less of others. Short sentences and short words are the order of the day.
There is no shame in writing for mass audiences. If you are writing about something which you are passionate about you should want to reach and touch as many people as possible with your work.
I have never done this before, but it does seem fitting. My words per sentence for this article was 16.2 and my Flesch Kincaid Grade Level was 7.3.
It is easy to make things complicated, it takes greater skill to make things simple and easy to understand.
Thank you for reading,
By Barnaby Nash
Please share your thoughts in the comments section below or reach out to me on social media. What do you think of the importance of simple English?
Let’s stay connected