Don’t hide bad news behind weak headings

If you have good news, you make your message as clear as possible. Do the same thing with bad news, for the sake of your readers.

When you book a flight with Air New Zealand, they send you an email. You only need to read the first line to know what’s up.

Your booking has been completed

Then, when Air New Zealand are about to fly you somewhere, and they have a few things they think you might like to know about the flight, and what to do while you’re away, they send you an email. You only need to read the first line to know what it’s about. Continue reading

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.

Writing content that’s easy to scan read

Web readers don’t read much

If you’re writing more than 2 or 3 paragraphs, it’s probably more than most of your readers will take in. As a web writer your job is to take what little attention the reader will give you and direct the bulk of it towards whatever goal the reader turned up with. You need to serve scan reading.

Web reading is goal-oriented. Your reader has a problem they want to solve or something they want to learn. They’ve come to your page with a task in mind and it’s your job to let them finish it quickly and easily.

Low word counts help readers

Start by keeping your word count down. Keep the path from “let’s see if this webpage has the information I want” to “great, I found it – thanks, Helpful Webpage!” as short as possible.

Don’t waste scarce reader attention on needless words. See what I just did there? This whole paragraph is repetitive guff. Sorry.

Shorter words and sentences help readers

It’s generally easier to read shorter words and sentences. That’s the theory behind reading grades which turn your count of letters, words, and sentences into an indication of how easy (or difficult) your work is to read.

Much like a low word count shortens your readers’ path, a good level of readability smooths the path out. It makes for a faster trip from A to B.

Let your reader know what’s coming next

A good subheading makes it really obvious what the next few sentences or paragraphs are about. There are different ways to do that.

  • Summarise the section. For example, the subheading above, “Shorter words and sentences help readers”, is a 6-word summary of the 5 sentences that follow.
  • If you can’t summarise it, describe the section. The next section of this page is called “How a good subheading helps”. This isn’t a proper summary, because it doesn’t tell you what helpful things subheadings can do. But it does give a clear idea of what you’d learn if you read that section.

How a good subheading helps

If your work’s word count is the length of your reader’s path and its readability is the smoothness, we can stretch this metaphor one more time. Subheadings are signposts. They let your reader choose whether to go into each section of your work, or skip past and keep looking.

Your readers are only going to take in a quarter or a third of your words, so help them quickly sort out “stuff I do want to read” and “stuff I don’t want to read”. Look back through the subheadings in this post and see how they directed you through it:

Web readers don’t read much
Low word counts help readers
Shorter words and sentences help readers
Let your reader know what’s coming next
How a good subheading helps

If you already knew about word counts, you knew that you could skip the second section. If all you wanted to know was what the benefit of a good subheading is, you could scroll to the last section.

As the writer I’m helping you make those calls. I’ve expected that you won’t read this whole thing, so I’ve helped you decide what to ignore and what to focus on. If I got it right you found what you wanted quickly and easily.

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This post is 603 words long, with a reading grade of 6.6.

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.