Fight for readability with five easy fixes

The easier we make it to read our newsletters and other material, the more people will read, understand and retain.

Sometimes copy reviewers – engineers and lawyers spring to mind – will challenge you. They’ll try to turn simple words into stilted, formal comments. Sentences will lengthen, stuffed full of every fact. Jargon and acronyms will abound.

Fight back! Measure readability stats before and after the approval process and point out the difference. Mention that you want to make sure people whose first language isn’t English will understand. Or remind them that they are reviewing facts, not grammar.

Here’s some ammunition.

One of the fastest ways to increase readability and reader understanding is to reduce average sentence length. The American Press Institute suggests eight to 14 words, which 90 percent of readers would understand. At the other end of the scale, 43 words per sentence will at best get nine per cent understanding, or more likely zero. I once found a sentence that was a stunning 105 words long. I’m not sure if it was meant to be confusing, but it sure was. Another had 48 words, many of them jargon; that one I am positive was designed to confuse.

You’ll reduce sentence length and improve understanding by doing many of the other things recommended for readability:

  1. Using simple words of one or two syllables (“use” vs. “utilize”)
  2. Using active sentences (“The dog bit the man” vs. “The man was bitten by the dog.”)
  3. Breaking up sentences so they only have one thought. Move job titles and explanations to other sentences.
  4. Aiming for a grade level of 9 or less according to the Flesch-Kincaid formula. This doesn’t mean you are “dumbing down” your copy but making it easier for busy people to skim and understand.
  5. Replacing wordy writing (“We need” vs. “We are in need of”).

Here are some recent real-life examples of wordiness and the shorter options that will improve readability:

  • In the month of October… (In October)
  • In support of… (Supporting)
  • Company X is supportive of… (Company X supports)
  • They were appreciative of… (They appreciated)
  • I am desirous of… (I want to)
  • Has engaged in a process of reviewing… (Has reviewed)
  • How do you conduct an assessment… (How do you assess)
  • It’s a strategy that addresses the incorporation of… (The strategy incorporates/includes)
  • We will need to get in contact with… (We need to contact/reach)
  • Have a propensity to… (Are likely to)
  • Was illustrative of… (illustrated/showed).

What wordy writing have you come across? Have you found a sentence longer than 105 words? Have you found it difficult to convince a reviewer that simpler is better? Tell me about it in the comments.

Image: Boxing glove by “hin255″ and FreeDigitalPhotos.net.

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4 Comments

  1. Posted April 26, 2013 at 8:51 am | Permalink

    These are GREAT tips, Sue. I see the examples you have cited all the time. One of the biggest offenders is turning active verbs into sleepy nouns. Another: excess modifiers (“blue in colour”).

  2. Posted April 26, 2013 at 8:58 am | Permalink

    Thanks, Donna! Oh, the turning of verbs to nouns – one of my pet peeves, too. Sometimes I think, “Are we still talking about this?” But every single example I used came from something recent.

  3. Roger Morier
    Posted April 26, 2013 at 12:29 pm | Permalink

    Good stuff, Sue! I am reminded of Strunk and White’s declaration that “vigorous writing is concise” and try to live up to that maxim at all times. I always told writers whom I had the pleasure (!) of editing, “if in doubt, take it out – before I do!”. It helped considerably. One of my favourites: “at this point in time” = “now”.

  4. Posted April 26, 2013 at 12:52 pm | Permalink

    Nice to hear from you, Roger. Your favourites is one of mine too. Surprising that it was not among the recent offenders!

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