I’m sure you understand how important readability is. The success of your content hinges on it. But do you know how to write in a readable way?
If you’re looking for some practical tips that you can use to improve your writing today, then you’ll love this infographic. It contains a few simple measures you can use for better writing.
Keeping readers reading
In March 2017, Paul Romer decided it was time to start a revolution.
No, the chief economist of the World Bank didn’t join the Occupy movement, he simply asked for better written reports from his research department. In an internal staff memo, he announced he wouldn’t approve reports for publishing if the word ‘and’ made up more than 2.6 percent of the text. Romer said the new rule, amongst other measures, was intended to “drive home the importance of focus” among writers.
What sounds like a funny anecdote is actually very relatable. Just like Mr. Romer, each day we have to plow through text we perhaps only vaguely understand, if at all. We develop coping strategies that are far from perfect. Who actually reads the 92 pages outlining the terms and conditions that come with your latest software update? Most of us just give up and hit the ‘I accept’ button. That doesn’t mean it isn’t important to understand how the terms have changed. We’d just love to get them after a minute of breezy reading.
It’s worth keeping that in mind when writing copy, regardless if you’re publishing an essay, details on a legal framework, or instructions on how to set up a tent. You want to make sure that your audience understands what you’re trying to get across with minimum effort.
The key to this is the concept of readability. Researchers have developed various systems to offer you an idea of how advanced a reader has to be to understand your writing. There are many tools using these methods online but unfortunately, most are very anglocentric. The linguistic formulas they’re based on don’t translate well into other languages as they usually count the number of characters or syllables in a word.
Of course we don’t always have to write our text for an audience with the education level of early adolescents; but it pays to rework your piece taking readability into account. Most of the time your text will become punchier, clearer and more concise along the way. Here are six tips for better readability:
1 – Shorter, faster, better, stronger
Short sentences rule. Ceasar’s ‘Veni; vidi; vici’ ("I came; I saw; I conquered") is an entire story told in three words. A sentence should be treated as a unit with a single idea in each one. The fewer ideas you express in one sentence, the more easily people will remember it.
Break your text up into short paragraphs, each one transporting a single concept or aspect. Give these paragraphs strong headlines. This will guide the reader through your text from top to bottom and provide a logical transition between paragraphs.
2 – Respect your reader’s time and mood
Ahh, there’s nothing quite like coming home after a long workday and soldiering your way through a contract or comparing lengthy product descriptions, right? There’s a reason why many young people turn to late night comedy TV shows for their dose of daily news – many believe they’re a credible source and they’re much more fun than tuning in to traditional news broadcasts. It’s worth considering that when you’re writing copy. Try to turn the possibly unpalatable, boring and predictable into something that compels the reader to keep reading.
Remember that on average people only read 60% of an online article, so get to the point quickly. Not only that, astoundingly, internet users share 6 out of 10 articles online without ever having actually read them – so having an appealing headline and teaser is crucial.
3 – You talkin’ to me?! - Audience matters
It’s very important to know who you are talking to and to style your language accordingly.
But beware of jargon. It can be valuable to demonstrate your understanding of a complicated topic or process. Misuse can have the opposite effect you were going for. As the author of ‘Everybody Writes’ Ann Handley says, keep it simple as “no one will ever complain that you speak in plain terms that are easy to understand”.
4 – Write well, write often.
As with anything, being good takes practice. Blogging researchers have shown the more often you publish, the more subscribers you are likely to have. But before you go on a blogging frenzy, make sure you have someone else check your work. Getting another person to look over your text is a great way to prevent mistakes and stop bad writing habits from creeping in.
5 – 注意 !!!
If your copy is going to be translated into other languages, keep in mind that different readability concepts apply. Without a highly skilled translator who can find the exact equivalent in the target language, wordplay, idioms and metaphors can end up as major failures. That being said, don’t strip them completely from your writing, because that’s what makes language interesting.
6 – Final step: Check your readability
In an ideal situation, you’d have a professional text editor check your copy. The editor’s job is to make your prose perfect by cleaning up style, tone-of-voice and terminology usage. But there’s a multitude of online solutions that can help as well.
One handy online app is readable.io. It checks your sentence lengths and highlights words that are difficult to read. Get rid of what is not essential to ensure maximum readability and then calculate your final score. You wrote a warning sign for a fire blanket that still takes a college degree to understand? Repeat.
This post was originally written in English, meaning it comes from an English perspective. Fortunately, readability algorithms exist for many languages. The Coleman-Liau index works for most European languages. While the Wiener Sachtextformel was made specifically for German and LIX is popular in Scandinavian countries.
Language is an art
Finally, keep in mind that language preferences are different and these tips are definitely not golden rules that will work every time. Trying to oversimplify complex language was what got Paul Romer at the World Bank into trouble. He had to step down from his position because of his push for clarity and his “and” rule: it was deemed too radical.