Want to improve your writing? Improving the readability of your text is a good place to start. When you focus on how readable your writing is, you’re really thinking about your reader. If your prose is easy to read, your reader is more likely to stick around and read it. (Which means that if you’re writing for the web, you’ll improve – that is, decrease – your bounce rate.)
The general consensus is that you should write at a 7th or 8th grade level. This does not mean that readers are uneducated and can only understand text at this level. It does mean that when people are looking for information, they are not looking to read something with the complexity of a Henry James novel. They want brevity and above all, clarity. Next time you’re writing something, think about your reader, and follow these tips.
How to improve the readability of your writing:
- Choose simple words. Why say “beverage” when you can say “drink”? Why say “automobile” when you can say “car”? Words with fewer syllables are more readable. Of course you can use longer words, but make sure you’re doing so for a good reason. If you don’t have a reason, go for the shorter and more common word instead.
- Avoid jargon. It can sound impressive but often doesn’t say anything. Businesses can do themselves a disservice by using words like “implement” and “synergize” too often. Not only are they bland, but they are so common that your company will be indistinguishable from your competitors. Nix it.
- Keep your sentences short. Shorter words are better. So are shorter sentences. Various studies have found that the optimum length for sentences is somewhere between 15-22 words. The simple fix for long sentences is to break them up into two or more parts.
- Vary your sentences. Not just sentence length (like following a 4-word sentence with a 19-word sentence like this), but sentence construction, too. Reading too many sentences in a row that all begin with clauses disrupts the flow. To stop this happening, start some sentences with the subject.
- Structure your text for readability. Shorter words, better. Shorter sentences, better. Shorter paragraphs… better, of course! Break paragraphs up so they’re self-contained and each illustrate a single point.
- Format your text for readability. Think about how you read when you’re surfing the internet. You click on a page and scan the text to see if it’s something you want to read. You might read the first few sentences of the first paragraph and then random sentences or phrases throughout the rest, trying to find what you’re looking for. Bullet points and boldface (and shorter paragraphs, above) all make that process easier, so take advantage of them.
How readable is it now?
You can test the readability of your work in an online text analyzer or even through Word. (You might find it under Spelling and Grammar–Options or under Proofing. Google how if you can’t find it in your version of Word.)
A few different scales were developed to measure how readable a chunk of text is. Here are a couple you’re most likely to encounter:
- The Flesch Reading Ease score gives a number on a scale of 0-100. The higher the score, the more easily understood something is. To give you an idea of the scale, “The Itsy Bitsy Spider” is 85 (very high level of readability), what I’ve written so far is about 64 (ideal level of readability), and a chunk of Henry James I analyzed is 22 (very low level of readability). Shoot for a Flesh Reading Ease score of around 60-70.
- The Flesch-Kincaid Grade Level gives the approximate grade (in U.S. levels) needed to understand what’s written. Other scales like the Coleman Liau do this, too. Aim for a 7th grade level on the Flesh-Kincaid Grade Level scale. Again, this is not to imply that your readers can’t read above a 7th grade level. They likely can. But they likely don’t want to. (If you’re curious, this post up to now gets a score of a 6.94.)
While text analyzers and scores give you great feedback, don’t rely on them too much. They’re a good starting point, but if you’re concerned about whether your text is readable (and I think you should be), you’ll need some human eyes on it at some point. Consider hiring someone to proofread or edit your work.
Readable writing is clear and concise.
If you find yourself getting bogged down in a complicated, meandering sentence or paragraph and you don’t know how to fix it, ask yourself this: What am I trying to say? Then write it as you’d say it. This advice sounds hopelessly simple, but it’s effective. It stops you from getting too fancy. In normal speech you wouldn’t ramble on with multiple sub-clauses using sesquipedalian words. So don’t do it in your writing.
Combine that with another piece of advice you’ve no doubt heard many times before – cut out unnecessary words – and you’ll be sure to improve the readability of your writing.