Journal - Writing for Readability - Linnihan Foy

Simplify Your Writing – Improve Readability

Writing for Readability

JUNE 6, 2019


by Max Sundermeyer, Writer

I’m a firm believer in “the simpler, the better” in many facets of life. I like my coffee black, my ice cream vanilla and my writing readable.

Writing for readability is a major facet in today’s content creation. The problem is that many writers, especially beginning writers, feel longer content with larger words equal better content.

The only case in which this is true might be the works of F. Scott Fitzgerald. But listen, I love the Great Gatsby. It’s great writing. It’s not for your content.

What Readability Is and Isn’t
It’s a popular misconception that readability means “dumbing down” content. Some think it represents a lazy form of writing. The opposite is true.

Writing for readability is communicating your message in a clear and concise way. It’s writing that allows your reader to understand your content. It inspires them to keep reading. When developing technical content, it’s important to communicate to subject matter experts that you’re not diluting their message, you’re helping share it.

Tools to Measure Your Readability
There are two popular formulas to use when testing your content for readability. The Flesch-Kincaid Reading Ease and Flesch-Kincaid Grade Level are considered benchmark statistics for clear writing.

The Reading Ease measures your content on a scale of 1-100, with one being the hardest to read and 100 is the easiest. Best practice is to have your score between 60-70.

The Grade Level Score measures syllables and sentence length in your copy. You should produce writing that is understood at the 7th or 8th grade reading level. This doesn’t mean you’re writing for middle school; it means your content is understandable.

Microsoft Word Readability Stats
Odds are, you’ll be creating a bulk of your content in Word. Well, lucky for you, Word has a Readability Statistics feature built in. Here’s how you can turn them on:

PC users: File > Options > Proofing > Click “Show readability statistics”
Mac users: Word > Preferences > Spelling and Grammar > Click “Show readability statistics”

The Hemmingway Editor App
There was no one better at clear, concise and bold writing than Ernest Hemmingway. The Hemmingway Editor App won’t lead you to write the next great American novel, but it will help you simplify for your content. Paste your copy into the editor, and, along with measuring grade-level, the tool will identify:

  • Sentences that are hard or very hard to read
  • Adverb use (the fewer the better)
  • Words or phrases that can be simpler
  • Use of passive voice

Why not lean on the best to help your writing? The Hemmingway app will make your copy clearer – take advantage of it.

Achieve Improved Readability in Your Writing
Improving the readability of your writing is not an impossible task. In most cases, eliminating words or phrases, or finding shorter synonyms achieves it.

Keep Your Words Short
Two is greater than three or four in this case, meaning two-syllable words will take your content further than longer words. In most cases, you can find a shorter synonym for what you’re trying to say.

One of the more obvious examples that come to mind is “utilize”. Writers often use this word to make something sound overly important. It gives off the impression your trying too hard. Avoid it and replace it with “use” instead.

Cut Clutter
Keep your sentences less than 14 words (on average). Readers, even high-literacy readers, have trouble understanding long sentences. An easy way to eliminate sentence length is to cut out useless adverbs or adjectives in your writing. Many think these improve your content. They actually make it weaker. Simple example:

  • No: It was a very warm day
  • Yes: It was a hot day

“The road to hell is paved with adverbs,” – Stephen King

Break It Up
Like long sentences, large blocks of copy are an immediate turnoff to readers. Keep your paragraphs to two or three sentences. Any more is a sign you’re not getting your point across. And, when possible, break up content into lists that are more digestible to your reader.

One of my favorite writing gurus, Ann Wylie, recommends using the “palm test” when writing. Hold up your hand to your monitor or laptop screen. Chunks of copy should not be larger than the palm of your hand.

Lose the Industry Speak
Every industry has words or phrases the outside world doesn’t understand. Don’t put them in your outside-facing content. Cut the jargon and use vocabulary people outside your industry will understand. Thesaurus is your friend. Examples include:

  • Core competency – strength
  • Buy-in – support
  • Disambiguate – clarify

Ditch Passive Voice
Passive voice, by definition, is the opposite of bold writing. In the case of readability, writing in passive voice inserts more useless words into your content. A few examples are:

  • Passive: Man was bitten by dog.
  • Active: Dog bites man

Passive voice is a frowned upon form of writing. It can be especially harmful to your readability. Need help ditching passive voice? The Hemmingway Editor App and Grammerly are great tools at your disposal.

To conclude, I thought it best to practice what I preach and measure this post to readability statistics. Now, with this information in mind, go out there and start writing what anyone can read.