Friday, April 15, 2016

Improving the Readability of Your Writing

What is readability? Essentially, it’s how easy it is for readers to read your writing. Improving the readability of your writing helps your reader to comprehend what you’re saying more accurately in less time.

Figuring the readability of writing began in the late 19th century in the U.S. Schools didn’t use graded or grade level materials until around 1847. Somehow teachers expected students to learn to read all on the same level. This probably came about because so many schools were one-room affairs with students from all grade levels in attendance. And while educators established graded reading levels for students, no one ever paid attention to the reading level of adults until the U.S. military took a stab at it. They found that in 1937 general adult readers had limited reading ability.

In 1921, Edward Thorndike published his landmark book, The Teacher’s Word Book. In it, he noted the frequency of difficult words used in general literature. For the first time, a notable scholar suggested a means to measure difficult words through mathematical formulas. He showed that overall reading comprehension is directly related to the number of difficult words in any piece of writing. 

So how does this relate to your writing? While you may not know the reading level of what you write, you can take these steps to ensure that it’s readable to the majority of adult readers. Believe it or not, the average reading level in the U.S. is tenth grade. That means there are readers who read above that level and also those who read below it. The more educated a certain group of readers is, the higher their reading level.

As a writer, you can’t assume that everyone that reads your work has gone to college. Depending on your target audience, chances are that about half have done so.

To make your writing more readable, follow these simple steps:

Focus on Your Reader. Who will be reading your writing—young adults, men, women, seniors? Find out as much as you can about your readers' education, reading habits, age, sex, occupational background, and so on. Even knowing the likes of "the general reader" is better than writing in a vacuum. Analyze the advertisements in the publication you intend to write for to help you discover your what your readers like.

Focus on Your Purpose. Why are you writing? What do you expect your readers to do? Read your piece casually? Study it? Use it for reference? Read it for entertainment during leisure hours? Be sure of what you are trying to do and write accordingly.

Design Your Writing to Fit. Once you know your audience and your purpose, you can design your piece of writing to fit. Ordinarily, this means that you start raising your readability by increasing the number of "personal words." For easy and interesting reading, a story design is usually best--either sustained narrative or anecdotes, illustrative examples, and practical applications, sandwiched between straight description. For instructional pieces, the best design is the direct "you" approach, or cookbook style.

In other words, you can increase the number of "personal words" by using the first and second persons for yourself and your reader and by explaining your ideas through the experiences of people.

Use Direct Quotes at Key Points. Move your narrative along by using direct quotes at key points along the way.  After increasing the number of "personal words," increase the number of "personal sentences." In today's professional writing the proportion of dialogue to narrative is increasing steadily. Successful writing today uses a conversational approach

Break up Sentences and Paragraphs. Next, shorten the length of your average sentence. To do this, look for the joints in complex sentences and break them, changing dependent clauses to independent clauses. Also, there’s a natural relationship between the length of sentences and the length of paragraphs. After you’ve shortened your sentences, break up your paragraphs to fit the changed rhythm. And avoid using semi-colons. Put a period where a semi-colon should be. But make sure the new sentence following it relates directly to the previous one.

Use Simpler Words. While you should generally choose a simpler word over a more complex one, some of the long, complex words may be technical terms that shouldn't be changed. As for the rest, remember that complexity rather than length makes for reading difficulty. Many complex words are abstract nouns. Change these nouns into verbs, particularly simple verbs with adverbs. For example, instead of using the word “condescension,” use “look down on.”  And no, using simpler words won’t make you seem less intelligent. That’s a myth fostered by academics who like to show off how smart they are. As a writer, no one cares how intelligent you are, only that you communicate your thoughts well.

Help Your Reader Read. You’ll raise the level of readability indirectly if you try to help your readers read. Point out to them what’s significant. Using bold type, tell them to remember what they should remember, use headings to prepare them for what they’re going to read, and summarize for them what they’ve read.

Learn to Cut. The most common problem with beginning writers—and some advanced ones, too—is wordiness. Tightening up your writing by cutting non-essentials will make essentials stand out better and save the reader time.  If your piece of writing is too long, some readers may skip it altogether.

Rearrange for Emphasis. Readers remember best what they read last. Rearrange your writing with that in mind. Repeat important concepts towards the end so that readers will remember them.

Punctuate for Readability. Avoid semicolons and colons which tend to lengthen sentences. Parentheses make writing appear more formal and take away from its conversational casualness. Also, get in the habit of reading what you’ve written aloud to “hear” where punctuation should go.

Following these simple steps will help to drastically improve your writing with an almost immediate effect.

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