How using the Gunning Fog Index improves your writing

 copywriting, Marketing, Writing  Comments Off on How using the Gunning Fog Index improves your writing
Jul 122013

I can never get fairy cakes to rise. They come out the oven, lopsided, and barely peeping over the cases. In short, they are an embarrassment. Is it the sifting, the eggs, the mixing, my oven or simple incompetence?

I’ve never got to the bottom of it. Consequently making fairy cakes is demoralising.

It can be like that with writing. You know your writing could be improved. It could have more impact, flow better or be easier to compose, but you’re not sure exactly where the problem is or how to fix it.

And so when you have to write, you end up feeling dissatisfied.

This is where online writing tools can help you find and fix issues with your writing.

Introducing The Gunning Fog Index

Today, I’m going to take a look at The Gunning Fog Index or Chop and Fog as I like to call it. This tool gives you a score for a passage of text you enter.

The score represents the reading age needed to understand the text.

It measures the score using:

  • the number of words in the passage
  • the number of 3 syllable words
  • the number of punctuation marks

What score should you aim for?

As a copywriter, I want to get a message across as easily as possible. I don’t want to write in a way that’s hard to read or doesn’t flow. For that reason I like to aim for a score of below 12.
You might think a reading age of 12 is a bit low.
Let’s take a couple of examples.

Example 1: blog post from Monsanto, a biotech corporation

The May 21, 2013, Chicago Council Global Food Security Symposium brought government, business, and civil society leaders together to capitalize on the power of connecting science, trade, and business to end hunger and poverty. At Global Harvest Initiative, these concepts are woven into our policy and investment priorities that can improve productivity throughout the value chain and sustainably meet the demands of a growing world.
The application of new and existing technologies across the agricultural value chain is a significant factor in raising agricultural productivity. Science-based technology, such as seed and fertilizer, and information technology, including better weather models and plant spacing techniques, increase yields through better inputs and better on-farm decision-making.
Many speakers at the Chicago Council event focused on the importance of farmers’ access to science and information technology to sustainable increase agricultural productivity.
Dr. Mauricio Antonio Lopes, president of the Brazilian Agricultural Research Corporation (Embrapa), explained that a move to science-based agriculture, including improved seeds and no-till agriculture, helped Brazil increase efficiency and productivity by up to 200 percent and reduce land expansion into sensitive rainforest environments.
Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation deputy director of research and development Dr. Rob Horsch talked about the importance of working with local farmers to adapt technology to solve local problems. Critically, he also stressed the importance of a feedback loop whereby farmers determine what they need and provide information on how technology worked, which is fed back into the research.
This passage scores 20.6 in the Gunning Fog Index
Monsanto's blog post in the Gunning Fog Index

Monsanto’s blog post in the Gunning Fog Index

This passage scores 20.6 in the Gunning Fog Index
The high score is because there are few punctuation marks and many three syllable words.
A large corporation such as Monsanto, has the resources to hire expert copy writers, editors and PR professionals to ensure that all messages in the public domain endorse the brand position. So it is interesting to ask why such a company would choose to publish copy that has a relatively high score on this index.

Why organisations sometimes prefer to use complex language

It could be ignorance. Maybe the author is not aware that her post is not as clear and simple as it could be. More likely, Monsanto deliberately opts for language that is harder to understand in order to sound authoritative and professional.

Scientists, bureaucrats and civil servants have for years used deliberately dense language to hide their true meaning from the general population. Think Yes Minister, the popular British TV comedy in which Sir Humphrey often confused the minister by talking in circles. It is a form of control.

If you make text hard to understand, the idea is the reader will feel it is beyond their intelligence. The end result is that the reader won’t dare to question the content in case they look stupid. This type of deliberate confusion should be avoided if you want to engage with your readers (and we do).

Does this mean that you should write in childlike language?

Not at all. It is a common misconception that compelling, easy to understand copy is simplistic and “dumbed down.” Let’s take another example that shows how copy can be clear yet grown up.

Example 2: Copy from an email sent out by a charity

Yesterday SolarAid became winners of a £500,000 Google Global Impact Award, following a flurry of activity from wonderful SolarAid fans who spread the word to friends and networks across the world about the incredible power of our solar lights.

Thank you for your support to help us win this award. We have been overwhelmed by the involvement of so many SolarAiders, old and new. Your enthusiasm and passion for SolarAid kept us going when the going seemed tough – we couldn’t have done it without you.

SolarAid will use the half a million pound prize to get 144,000 solar lights into rural Tanzania and recruit 400 school leavers to create a new generation of solar entrepreneurs. The support pledged by Google to the four Award winners will help SolarAid raise its profile, gain more supporters and ensure the injustice of living without clean light gets onto the world radar.

All this takes us a giant step further towards our goal of eradicating the kerosene lamp from Africa. If you’d like to share the excitement and watch the change unfold click here.

We’d also love you to spread our appreciation to everyone you asked to get involved – so please forward this message along with a BIG THANK YOU from SolarAid. 

Light is a basic human need, just like food, shelter and water. In the words of African-American civil rights activist, Ella Baker: “Give light and people will find the way.”
Stay with us while we lead an initiative that will literally light up millions of lives. 

Many thanks,
Pippa Palmer
Copy from Solar Aid email

Copy from Solar Aid email

This passage scores 9.139. That means it’s suitable for someone with a reading age below 10 years.

The piece is compelling and clear. It isn’t simplistic or dumbed down. Breaking up longer sentences has helped keep the score down. The writer hasn’t avoided 3 syllable words (it would be folly to try). They have just used them sparingly.
The writing convinces us through it’s simple, clear message with verifiable facts and figures. The passion behind the words comes through loud and clear.
The Gunning Fog Index highlighted the different reading ages needed for these two passages. They also show, in my opinion, which piece is more engaging.

How does that help your writing?

1. It makes you think about writing more clearly and simply. Used regularly, you will form better writing habits.
2. It shows you the 3 syllable words you’re using. Are there too many? Can you exchange some for simpler words?
3. It highlights over long sentences. It’s easy to chop a sentence in two and lower your score.
4. Adding a short sentence now and then makes the copy more interesting.
5. You can achieve a score below 13 without dumbing down.
Writing tools don’t do the job for you but shed light on writing habits. They’re fun to use now and then. When you find a good piece of writing, run it through the index.
Once you know how it works, you can use it to improve your writing, knowing you’re making your copy more readable. Unlike my fairy cakes, you can then feel pleased with your results.
If you’d like 1:2:1 coaching or a critique of your writing, please email me for a quote.

Advice on being a freelance copywriter – 10 things I’ve learnt

 Business, copywriting, Marketing  Comments Off on Advice on being a freelance copywriter – 10 things I’ve learnt
Jul 052013

I’ve been self employed since 1996 and running my marketing, copywriting and training business since 2008. Time, I thought, to reflect on what I’ve learnt.

Behind the scenes what have I learnt about keeping sane and solvent?

1. Like your own company

Seems obvious, but you’re going to spend an awful lot of time on your own. Just you, the computer screen and maybe your favourite playlists. If being on your own for hours at a stretch fills you with horror, then maybe stick to employment. If on the other hand you crave to be ‘far from the madding crowd’, then the freelance life might suit you very well. There are downsides to spending long hours in your own company.

2. Procrastination (the freelancer’s closest friend)

Ah, my dear old friend. Procrastination and writers go together like fish and chips. Procrastination is putting off what we need to do today, in favour of some totally non urgent task like de-cluttering the corner cupboard.

It may take the odd holiday but in my experience Procrastination will return to mess up your day and make you feel rotten. Deadlines usually see it off. It’s most likely to show up when you’ve been on your own for too long, when you’re either too busy or not busy enough. I don’t think you can ever banish procrastination for good.

In fact accepting its existence is probably essential for sanity. You learn to manage it and minimise its impact. Know your enemy.

Tiredness, being stale, being stressed give Procrastination the perfect working environment. So it helps to keep rested and have plenty of external input. One way to do that is to get out to networking events.

3. Networking (a “must do” for freelancers)

At my first ever networking event, I was so scared, I approached the entrance to the hotel, stopped, returned to my car, and had to make a second attempt at entering. That was in Llandeilo at The Cawdor. Going into that room full of strangers to try and “get business” was horrible and way outside my comfort zone as an organic farmer and farmers’ market stall holder.

These days, I enjoy networking. What was once intimidating is now a chance for human contact! If I haven’t been out for a while, it’s a great pick-me-up. This is especially true as the opportunities to network online increase. While that’s great for making contacts across the world, it’s not so good for alleviating isolation.

The thing with face to face networking is try and relax and focus on finding out more about the people you meet there. You soon forget about yourself. Being more relaxed once you do talk about your copywriting services you come across much better and invariably opportunities turn up from just getting out there and talking to people.

Getting over your nervousness will come with practice. If you really find it painful, get some books on the subject or attend some sessions on networking. That brings us on to self-promotion generally.

4. Self-promotion (a hard task for freelancers)

Many copywriters, hate the marketing side of life. I’ve pondered this many times and thought maybe we should have a Lonely Hearts Copywriters Column. Those that love crafting the copy could team up with those that love winning the work and support each other through the two stages.

I’m fortunate that during my days as an organic farmer I tackled my own demons about selling after attending a day course called Seductive Selling put on by FARMA (the farm retail association).

There we examined our prejudices about sales people, like the stereotypical pushy used car salesman. No-one wants to be that person surely? Instead we started to explore how selling can be seen as solving people’s problems. Suddenly you become helpful and useful. From the point of view of solving problems, it is far easier to offer those services without making yourself and others cringe.

It’s something we do in sales copy, look for the problem the product or service solves. So do the same with your own services.

Which brings us to your core skills.

5. Learning

As copywriters, our skill is finding the words to engage a specific target audience with products or services and persuading them to buy.

People come to copywriting through many different routes. I did a diploma before I set up as a freelance. Although I’d been involved with selling in person and in print in our organic farm businesses, I didn’t have any formal training.

After school and college I thought I never wanted to sit another exam or do another assignment. I was in my late thirties when I did that copywriting diploma. And I loved it. Loved getting back to studying. It’s easy to think, once you’re set up as a freelancer that your learning days are over.

You’d be wrong.

The digital landscape is constantly changing. If you write for websites you need to keep up to date with changes in search, customer behaviour and use of digital devices. Writing is a skill that takes practice to fine tune. However without further learning and feedback you don’t know whether you are practising good or bad techniques.

For me, I’m in danger of becoming a course junkie.

Every year I aim to do at least 3 or 4 day courses and a 1-2 month part time course as well. You don’t have to focus just on writing courses, explore related areas you enjoy. Why not sign up for courses on photography, video making, web design, illustration, coding or art history? They will all inform and enrich your copywriting giving you and your clients a better result.

And learning is one of the great joys of life:-

  • It refreshes your brain
  • Helps release creativity
  • Creates new skills
  • Develops existing skills
  • Gives you another mental environment where the goal is education not commerce
  • Introduces you to new people

When you’re just starting out, it can seem impossible to find the time and resources for learning but do it anyway. Listen to free webinars in the evening, get books from the library. It will build your business far quicker in the long run. Another thing that will help you get established more quickly is finding a supportive group

6. Support groups

Isolation is a recurring theme in the freelance life. For me it is something I love and hate. I love the quiet space of my office where I can concentrate. Yet too much isolation and I start to go stir crazy. Cabin fever sets in and I crave outside stimulation. That’s where support groups are useful.

When I first set up, I joined the Carmarthen Women In Rural Enterprise (WIRE) group. I looked forward to those monthly meetings, not only to learn from the speakers but also for that chance to share the successes and challenges we faced each month.

The other dominant theme in the freelancer’s life is cash flow.

7. Cash flow – a challenge for freelancers

The flow of lucre. The ebb and flow of our bank accounts can make or break our week. I’ve been self employed so long now that I can’t imagine what it’s like to have a monthly pay check turn up regular as clock work.

I know for those in regular employment, the insecurity of the freelancer’s life is one of the biggest reasons to stay put. You can’t get away from it. It’s a challenge. Even when the money flows you have one eye on the future, aware that this contract or project will come to an end.

Financial insecurity to me means not knowing where next year’s income is coming from. Like procrastination, it is something you may never entirely eliminate. So perhaps you shouldn’t try.

Rather embrace the buzz and adrenaline pump that the insecurity gives you. After all it’s what makes you get out to the next networking event or send the next email marketing campaign. A few will only be freelance for a period of months or years, perhaps while rearing children. It is a stop gap before returning to employment or a stepping stone on the way to building an agency or creating a larger enterprise.

Being freelance has given me more time with my children and allowed me to live on a remote farm on a Welsh hill side. I prefer working on my own, collaborating with others on certain projects but without the shackles and responsiblities of managing staff and a bigger business. As a one woman band, I can adapt my business and change direction at will.

It’s true, I may not enjoy that adrenaline buzz of insecurity into my sixties and seventies. That’s made me consider other forms of income like online courses and e-books. Allowing me to earn from my knowledge, even when I’m asleep. It’s early days but I’m encouraged by my husband’s success with his electronic Free-Range and Organic Poultry Handbook by Stephen Merritt.

There are plenty of challenges to the freelancer’s life but let’s focus a little more on the upsides.

8. Do something naughty  but nice in the middle of the day

As a freelancer living in an age of excellent mobile communications, it strikes me that we MUST take full advantage of being mistresses of our own time. Nothing demonstrates your freedom more than doing something naughty but nice in the middle of the day. Taking off for an outdoor swim, a coastal walk, a run, bike ride, visit to an art gallery, an afternoon film or simply high tea in a grand hotel, are things you SHOULD do as a freelance copywriter.

They all come under the heading of getting CREATIVE STIMULATION but really they are about saying, as a freelancer I live with financial insecurity, manage procrastination, suffer long periods of isolation and so this is my reward. If you’re not already doing it, be bold and plan in an afternoon a week to go off and feed your brain. Don’t forget to relish it and feel smug about all those desk slaves in the offices you pass. Sunny days are particularly good days to unchain yourself from your computer!

Another perk of the job is creating your own work space.

9. Create your own work space

I began my freelance career using my laptop on my dressing table in the corner of my bedroom. Today I have a beautiful office space separate from the house. In here are books, paintings, furniture, rugs and ornaments I’ve chosen. You may not start with a dedicated office but a writer’s room is surely something we all dream of? So start making it happen. Even if you work on a desk under the stairs, stamp your personality on that space.  You don’t need a writers room to write good copy, but it’s a great perk if you can get one!

10. Develop a hobby

Writers are curious people and as such often have many interests but no specific hobbies. The freelancer’s life can mean it’s hard to switch off, especially if your work space is at home. An utterly absorbing hobby is a good antidote. One that takes you out of your writing space and out of your head. Preferably something physical. It could be gardening, a sport like sailing or canoeing, or craft or sewing. Perhaps, travel, cooking or volunteering. Or it might be something madcap like sky diving, charity fun runs or circus skills.

As well as giving you a complete break it gives you a focus for your earnings. You’re writing to fund your next project, trip or piece of equipment.

These are 10 things I’ve learnt so far.

Would I change the freelance life?

Every now and then I wonder about returning to an office based job. The camaraderie and life of an office can seem appealing when you’re alone and short on inspiration. Yet I know, deep down, that I have an amazing occupation that gives me opportunities I could never have dreamed of.

It allows me to work from my farm with clients and colleagues all over the world, yet generally be here when my children come home from school. It has the scope to develop in so many different directions, so there’s no chance of getting stale.

In the last few years, I’ve developed workshops for rural businesses to help them with copywriting, email marketing and creating digital content. This has developed another set of skills and brought me into contact with some wonderful people doing amazing things. I’ve visited some fabulous venues and enjoyed excellent local food!

So on balance, no I wouldn’t change it. What about you? What have you learnt from working on your own?