Eight simple favours you can do your readers

The subject of adult literacy came up at work today. As a writer you need to know and serve your audience, and your audience isn’t always great at extracting meaning from strings of words. So, based on a rant I fired out to a few hundred colleagues, here are eight favours you can do your readers.

1. Treat plain language as seriously as any other aspect of accessibility

Complex language excludes people. Don’t write to appeal to a narrow audience – write for as many people as you can and let your audience choose itself. It’s that simple.

2. Break bad habits: Don’t join in when people talk shit

You’re in a meeting and someone mentions that, going forward, we’re going to leverage third party relationships more effectively. Do you start brainstorming ways to effectively leverage relationships, or do you start writing down things that you can do better when you work with other companies? There’s a difference.

Similarly, do you do BAU, or do you have regular work? Drop acronyms and jargon from they way you talk and they’ll stop turning up in the things you write.

3. Test your work

Whether it’s an automated reading grade check or running your work past a test audience of regular readers, give yourself an idea of how well people will comprehend what you’ve written.

4. Pick someone you know and write as if they’re the audience

A trusted old trick. Warren Buffett famously writes his company’s annual reports as if his sisters are reading. All you need to do is think of a regular person. It’s cheating if you choose the smartest person you know.

5. Admit it: People don’t use glossaries

Glossaries say, “yeah, we knew we were confusing people, so we figure they can keep doing research and cross-referencing stuff until they can keep up with us”. People say, “screw that, I’ll just ask someone else”.

Things need to make sense straight away, not after you explain yourself a second time.

6. Help each other

Yes, sometimes you’ll get stuck. If you work with other writers or an editor, don’t by shy to ask for help with a phrase that you can’t get right. No colleagues to call on? You wouldn’t be the first person to tweet with the hashtag #plainlanguage and tap into brains all around the world.

7. Remember the adult literacy stats

In the USA, for example, 46-51% of adults have low literacy. Australia is similar, with 44% of adults at level 1 or 2 (of 5). Closer to my home, “distribution of literacy skills within New Zealand is similar to Australia, the United States and the United Kingdom”.

Look up the stats for your audience. Remember them.

8. Cater for busy, distracted readers

Reading comprehension drops with tiredness, stress and distraction. Chances are that your readers haven’t just woken up from a deeply relaxing sleep-in and started their day by looking attentively at a single full-screen window with nothing but your work in front of them.

Write for the people who have the TV on in the corner, fifteen other tabs open, a Facebook chat or two under way and a million other things to think about. If they could ever find the time to get around to it, they’d thank you.

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This post is 542 words long with an average reading grade of 8.0.

Seven things new web writers need to know

A lot of people are interested in, and passionate about, writing but there’s not often a clear way to take that hobby and turn it into a career. One the best parts of my job is finding people in that position and helping them turn writing into a skill they can sell.

This list is lesson one. It’s seven things that I introduce to already well-practised writers who are starting in the web world. Without them they’ll never go from being spare-time writers to earning pay cheques that say “web writer”.

1. Web accessibility

This is almost always new to the writers I work with (which isn’t surprising, given how lowly accessibility rates within large parts of the web industry.) Writing accessible web content isn’t difficult but it can be the difference between silence and conversation.

Accessibility isn’t about disability, so I avoid the old example of “the blind man and the screen reader”. Separating out part of the web-using world as “people who need accessibility” infers that there’s no gain (or maybe even a cost) to the majority of users, which is wrong.

Accessible web content is inclusive. We’re not bolting an “extra” audience onto the side of our core audience. We’re making our core audience as large as possible by letting you be a part of it no matter how you navigate or read the web, or how well you see (if at all), or how you use assistive technology. And that makes our content easier to use.

Even better, the techniques that make written content more accessible overlap other things on this list. (My post on good link text gives an example.)

2. Search engine optimisation (SEO)

This is an easier “sell” than accessibility, even though both increase your audience. A little bit of SEO knowledge can be a bad thing – if you don’t believe me spend 3 minutes reading a keyword-stuffed content farm – so approach SEO with caution.

I’m against anything that strays too close to algorithm-chasing. If you’re writing for the robots first it doesn’t take long for human readers to work out that something’s not quite right. Your writing should make it clear to search robots what you’re writing about without being inhuman.

Writers need to know:

  • the basics of keyword research
  • how and when to use keywords (and when not to)
  • how to write metadata – title, description and keywords for a page.

3. Our in-house writing guidelines

Almost all of the writers I work are already publishing words in one way or another – usually they’re helping with things like brochures or letters, or they have personal blogs. Some are even freelancing on weekends. But so far none have had a style guide they need to stick to.

Like every other corporation we have an in-house guide that solves a lot of grammatical or stylistic things that would otherwise come down to preference, and so differ between authors. For example we keeps things consistent by preferring contractions (“isn’t” over “is not”) and using commas to divide thousands (as in 5,000). We also have additional web writing guidelines.

Referencing every stylistic quibble back to a pair of documents takes time and isn’t an easy habit to pick up, but once you have a feel for a given style it makes writing faster.

4. Our brand voice and tone

Another staple of the corporate world. As well as our style guides we also have a particular brand voice – a way that everything we say should sound. MailChimp’s Voice and Tone is a fantastic example.

Getting brand voice and tone right takes time and practise. Reading examples helps but nothing beats writing, failing and succeeding for yourself.

It’s a big change for a hobby writer, no matter how skilled, to have to sound like someone else. Writing the same thing in different voices can be a good start. (For example: explain your job in a paragraph or two. Then write that explanation like your boss would, then like a bored cynic, then like a hyperactive child.)

5. (Very) basic HTML

I haven’t found a better way to introduce and demystify HTML than to share Mandy Brown’s wonderful article “Markup”. She explains how HTML creates a relationship between your words and their appearance, and then puts designers and readers in control. Writers need to know what meaning HTML can give text (“this text is a heading” means a lot more than “this text is big and bold”), and how to mark up their own text.

Fortunately, there’s a plus side to all this: HTML is easy to learn. Even if you never peeked at the source for a website, never so much as authored an anchor tag, you already know most of the principles behind it, because they emerged from the texts themselves.

Update, May 2013: If you’re hungry for more, the wonderful Karen McGrane has written the main course to follow Mandy’s appitiser: WYSIWTF

6. Writing for scan reading

This starts with a hard truth: people aren’t going to read every word you write. Web users are time poor and task-focused, and they have the whole internet to choose from. They scan read and you need to work with that habit. More than anything else in this list, this shows you the difference between the hobby of writing for yourself and the work of writing for others.

7. Plain language

Plain language fits in with accessibility, SEO, and our company’s writing guidelines and brand voice. (If your company doesn’t encourage plain language, why haven’t you quit yet?) But it’s too important, too underappreciated, and sadly too rare to leave between the lines, so it has its own place in this list.

Without wanting to reduce plain language to the mechanical scoring of reading grades, that at least gives us a starting point.

More posts:

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This post is 991 words long with an average reading grade of 8.5.

Plain language and the myth of “dumbing it down”

The biggest favour you can do your readers is write in plain language. You can also do your workplace a huge favour by advocating for plain language in everything it says to its customers (and within its own walls). But when you say, “hey, this policy is too hard to read”, there’s a common response you’re probably sick of hearing:

“We don’t want to dumb it down.”

This is true. You don’t want to insult your readers’ intelligence, or treat them like children. But there’s no relationship between plain language and dumbing it down.

  • The active voice isn’t dumber than the passive voice.
  • Short words aren’t dumber than long words.
  • Short sentences aren’t dumber than long sentences.
  • Common phrases aren’t dumber than obscure phrases.
  • Talking to people plainly isn’t dumb.

Writing something in plain English is not the same as dumbing it down. It doesn’t make you sound dumb, and it doesn’t make people think you’re treating them as if they’re dumb. In fact the opposite is true, which is awesome. It’s so awesome that I’m going to say it again, in plain language and in bold print:

Plain language makes you sound smarter, even to very clever people. There’s a lot of research that agrees about this. Here’s an example from the legal world.

Judges find plain English submissions more persuasive

A pair of researchers gave judges and research attorneys legal submissions. Half were written in “legalese” (the unplain native language of the judge and attorney) and half in plain English. Here’s what happened:

The respondents rated the passages in legalese to be substantively weaker and less persuasive than the plain English versions..Moreover, they inferred that the attorneys who wrote in legalese possessed less professional prestige than those who wrote in plain English.

[…] Judges and their research attorneys do in fact assess plain English briefs, and the lawyers who write them, more favorably.

PDF: Benson and Kessler, Legalese v plain English: An Empirical Study of Persuasion and Credibility in Appellate Brief Writing (Thanks, Digital Commons!)

Sound smart. Be smart. Write in plain language.

Plain language has a confidence that unclear, specialist language lacks. To explain something plainly you need to understand it really well. Your reader will notice, and appreciate it.

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This post is 385 words long, with an average reading grade of 8.1.

General web copy needs a reading grade of 9 or less

If you’re writing for a general web audience, aim for an average reading grade of 9 or less. Here’s why, and how to measure (and lower) your copy’s reading grade.

What’s a reading grade?

A reading grade indicates the years of education an average reader would need to be comfortable reading your text.

There are different systems for measuring this grade. Each uses a different formula, but common keys are average word length (measured either in syllables or letters), and sentence length.

Why have a limit so low?

Literacy levels in Australia

Over 45% of Australians aged 15+ have reading skills below the “minimum required … to meet the complex demands of everyday life and work”. 37% meet, but don’t exceed, that level.

These statistics are fairly well in line with other OECD countries (the USA (PDF), for example).

The challenges of reading on-screen

Research generally agrees that reading from a screen is slower than reading on paper, and suggests that it could reduce comprehension.

Smaller screens, which are becoming more popular, make complex content even harder to comprehend.

Getting readability scores

Dave Child’s free “Readability Score” tool checks the reading grade of text using five common methods, and counts your words and sentences. It gives you an average of those five scores, which in most cases is a better indicator than any single method of calculating a reading grade.

Using the readability score tool

This tool counts the number of letters in each word, and the number of words between full stops (or other sentence-ending punctuation, like question marks). It doesn’t parse text like a human does. Copy your text into the tool, then:

  • make sure there’s a full stop at the end of each heading, sub-heading, and list item
  • remove dots that the machine will wrongly see as full stops.

For example, if you’re checking this text:

You can find anything online

There’s no such thing as something you can’t find online (e.g. with Google). Seriously, there are sites for:

  • people who like to make Star Wars videos with lego men
  • fans of Irish Scottish ’80s pop sensations The Proclaimers, and
  • crazy racists looking to date other crazy racists.

You’d need to make these changes:

You can find anything online.

There’s no such thing as something you can’t find online (eg with Google). Seriously, there are sites for.

  • people who like to make Star Wars videos with lego men.
  • fans of Irish Scottish ’80s pop sensations The Proclaimers, and.
  • crazy racists looking to date other crazy racists.

This tells the grade-checking tool how people will read the text – we see headings and list items as stand-alone sentences, and we know that the dots in abbreviations aren’t full stops. It gives the tool better information to work with and usually has the happy effect of lowering the grade that the tool comes back with.

In this case the average reading grade drops by 1.2 (from 7.7 to 6.5). This can make the difference between another frustrating round of editing to get your reading grade down where it should be, and hitting “publish” and going home early.

How to lower your text’s reading grade

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This post has 578 words and an average reading grade of 7.2.