Readable (adj.): able to be read easily (Merriam Webster online)
|Image by Tarale (CC BY 2.0)|
In a recent post I talked about how you can improve your writing by focusing on purpose and audience. Once you have determined why you are writing and who your readers are, you’ll want to do your best to get your message across.
Research shows that more and more, people are doing their reading online – either on their computers or on devices such as tablets, smart phones and e-readers. Research also shows that people don’t actually read online, but instead they scan text for meaningful words and phrases. And on mobile devices, readers “read” even less.*
This is valuable information for writers. If more people are choosing to read online, and people who read online actually read less, you will need to make every word count. Good writing – specifically non-fiction – is about helping readers understand what you mean. Here are some ways to do that.
First, take some pointers from pre-Internet days. Literacy practitioners know that readers have an easier time understanding text when both sentences and words are shorter. Stick to one idea per sentence. Vary the length of your sentences, but try to limit the longer ones to around 20 words.
Similarly, readers can more easily read and understand common words with fewer syllables – say “use” instead of “utilize,” for example. It’s less work for your reader. Plain language advocates know this as well. Watch for jargon in your writing. Unless you are writing for a group of experts, choose words that will reach a broad audience.
As reading and writing have moved online, paragraphs have also become shorter. You could argue that they aren’t even paragraphs anymore, and that everything we teach students about correct paragraph structure no longer applies.
Instead of the standard topic sentence, main idea, supporting details and concluding sentence, well written paragraphs on the web are more like chunks of easily digested information. They may consist of only one sentence, and are most often set in block format with a blank space above and below. Visually, this space improves readability because the text is easier to scan for key information.
Finally, whether in print or onscreen, text readability is improved by adding visual elements such as headingsand bulleted lists. Headings organize the text and help the reader scan for information. Choose meaningful headings that tell readers what will follow. Bulleted lists perform a similar function because they reduce information to its basic words and phrases. They are also easy to scan.
Critics complain that this kind of writing “dumbs down” the content. Before drawing this conclusion, think again about your purpose for writing. Most often, you want your readers to understand what you mean. Taking steps to make your text more readable improves the chances that this will happen. If you do the work, then your readers don’t have to.
*Jakob Nielsen is an invaluable source of information about writing for the web. Read more of his extensive research findings in his Alertbox column on web usability.