9 steps to readable writingIn a showdown between fast cars and slow-moving turtles, the losers are easy to spot, flattened on increasingly busy roads. The study of this often deadly interaction of road networks and nature is called road ecology.

Some background reading I’m doing for a project includes a guide billed as a “resource for students, citizens, government and non-government agencies.”

If you produce material that you hope will be read and understood, you can use readability tests to get an idea of how you’re doing. I ran some tests on a section of the guide to see just how easy it is to read.

Here’s one paragraph — with danger zones highlighted by the Hemingway app — headlined “Direct Mortality: Wildlife/Vehicle Collisions (WVC’s).” (Ugh. If you had to use the awkward WVC instead of simply spelling out “collisions,” the plural does not take an apostrophe.)

WVC’s involving deer and moose jeopardize motorist safety, and millions of dollars are spent on these collisions every year in medical costs, vehicular repairs, insurance, road clean-up, road repair, time spent off work and extra time spent in transportation on routes closed or slowed down due to the accidents. As a result of the danger and cost, there is public support to mitigate these WVC’s. However, measures aimed specifically at keeping deer and moose off roads may do little to mitigate the effects of roads on wildlife conservation, because these species’ populations are not the most affected by road mortality. In fact, populations of deer and moose appear to be quite resilient to the effects of road mortality (Munro 2009). Fencing designed to keep deer and moose off roads is unlikely to prevent mortality of most species vulnerable to road mortality effects. Mitigation needs to be aimed at the species whose populations are most affected by road mortality, such as reptiles, amphibians, and mammalian carnivores. If roads occur or must be built through wildlife habitat, the first and most important objective for mitigating road effects and conserving wildlife should be to keep such animals off the roads.

A readability test shows this section has a grade level of about 16, making it understandable by 21- to 22-year-olds. There are 39 complex words (like mitigation), nearly 20% of the total 198 words. Average number of words per sentence is 28.29 (9-18 are best). Reading ease is 37.6 (you want 60 or more). The Hemingway app shows that only one sentence isn’t hard to read, and three are written in the passive voice.

I rewrote the lengthy paragraph and split it in two, aiming for simpler words and shorter sentences, in my newsletter, Wordnerdery.

Collisions involving deer and moose are dangerous and costly. Medical costs, car repairs, insurance, road clean-up and repair, missed work and road slowdowns cost millions of dollars each year. The public supports dealing with the problem.

Yet it turns out that deer and moose aren't the most affected by road death. The populations most affected are reptiles, amphibians and meat-eating mammals like foxes and raccoons.  Fencing designed to keep deer and moose off roads is unlikely to stop these animals. Instead, we must find other ways of keeping wildlife off roads that run through their habitat.

The rewrite meets a grade level of about 10, making it easily understood by 15- to 16-year-olds — and busy, impatient readers. There are 12 complex words, about 12% of the total 98 words. Average number of words per sentence is 14, about half of the original text. Reading ease is 65.7. The second sentence is the only one considered very hard to read, and there is no passive writing.

If a readability test shows a piece of writing could be improved, follow these nine steps:

  1. What point are you trying to make? Start with that in mind.
  2. Shorten words, aiming for an average of five characters per word; “death” instead of “mortality,” for example.
  3. Cut out unnecessary words, such as “specifically.”
  4. Break separate thoughts into separate sentences.
  5. Tighten and shorten sentences. Aim for an average of 14 words per sentence, which results in 90-99% understanding, according to the American Press Institute. A sentence of 28 words will be understood by only 50-59% of readers.
  6. Break paragraphs into fewer sentences, averaging just two or three.
  7. Make lists or bullet points if needed.
  8. Write to the reader (“you”).
  9. Use active vs. passive writing (“cost millions of dollars” vs. “millions of dollars are spent”).

Do you have an effective “before and after” piece of writing? Do share. And let me know if you’d like help making your own content more readable.

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