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How to Improve the Readability of Anything You Write

How to Improve the Readability of Anything You Write
Trade professionals—such as those who work in healthcare or insurance—who occasionally write for the general public should ask themselves two important questions before they start writing: 1) Will my target readers be able to read what I write? 2) If so, will the reader want to? Although all authors know these questions are relevant, not all authors obey them. This article will help writers and non-writers improve the readability of any document and ensure their readers can read and understand what they are trying to communicate.

A basic definition of "reading" is making meaning from print. It requires that readers 1) identify the words in print; 2) construct an understanding from these words; and 3) identify words and make meaning so that reading is automatic and accurate.

The aim for every writer is to have his/her readers comprehend a specific or purposeful message. Applying a readability formula to your text can help you decide its reading difficulty. A readability formula is a mathematical equation which measures the difficulty experienced by people reading a given text, and the linguistic characteristics of that text. Most readability formulas analyze a text's average sentence length, number of familiar words, syllable count, and so on, and output a reading or grade level based on these factors.

Using a readability formula to determine the reading difficulty of your message is helpful to ensure reader comprehension, but one should not soley rely on it. Declining literacy levels across the United States suggest that people who can read and comprehend messages at a high school level (between 7-8th grade) may be plummeting. This is one reason why a writer should try to produce the lowest readability level that is suitable for his/her target audience. Whether you choose to use a readability formula or not, you should learn techniques to reduce the difficulty of your text and improve a reader's motivation to read it.

A person's ability to read is determined not only by his/her reading skills—as measured on a standardized achievement test in U.S. schools—but also by the intensity of interest to read a particular piece. Even good readers may not read important information if they lack interest to do so. Similarly, poor readers may struggle to understand difficult material, even if they are interested. Just as writers can choose different words and sentence lengths to affect the readability level, they also can affect a reader's motivation. Readable writing is more than writing simply and concisely. Your writing should entertain and pique one's interest.

The writer's knowledge and insight of the target audience is critical in deciding if a piece of writing achieves appropriate readability and motivational levels.

Of course, simplifying your writing to reach all reading levels is not the best strategy. For example, if you write for professionals or trades people who readily understand technical information, then you probably do not want to cut out familiar hard words or "industry jargon," otherwise these skilled readers (your peers) will find your writing style flat and dull.

Techniques to Improve Readability

The following techniques will help you increase the chances that your readers will read and understand what your write.

Tip #1: Use one and two syllable words if appropriate. Most readers at all reading levels can recognize high-frequency words (sometimes called "basic sight words"), such as — 'he, 'her,' 'them,' 'there,' 'is,' 'and,' 'some,' 'same,' 'we,' 'you,' 'tree.' Avoid using too many 3-syllable words, unless that word is familiar to your readers.

Tip #2: When possible, write short, simple sentences. Introduce one idea in a sentence. Restrict the number of new ideas on a page. State the main idea at the beginning of each paragraph so the reader immediately knows the idea.

Tip #3: Use connective words ('firstly,' 'initially,' 'lastly,' 'however,' 'therefore,' etc.) to help guide the reader through sentences and paragraphs.

Tip #4: Use the active voice. Too many instances of passive voice will trouble poor readers and make sentences longer. Active voice makes your writing style and voice more concise and succinct.

Tip #5: Define difficult words by context clues, such as using parentheses to elaborate on a word, or using a footnote or citation to further explain the word.

Tip #6: Summarize important points in short paragraphs, perhaps with subheadings to break up bulky paragraphs. This helps the reader skim the material or to refer back to a specific paragraph.

Tip #7: Illustrations, speech bubbles, bullets, photos, graphs and different typefaces can add appeal to your material and increase reader retention.

Tip #8: Readers like "lists" because they can easily read sequential information or a series of events or ideas in narrative form. Good writers lead readers from point A to point B to point C and so on, without skipping around or zig-zagging around multiple ideas. Readers will quickly lose interest if you have them jumping around to make sense of things.

Tip #9: Choose a writing style that is easy to follow. Two popular writing styles include: 1) the "'question-answer" style in which the author asks a question and then answers it in detail; and 2) the "sharing-experience" style in which the author describes an experience in personal terms. You can also use the "list" style (as mentioned above) to emphasize main ideas in sequential order.

Tip #10: Nobody enjoys squinting and brainstorming through a long page of unfamiliar narrative. Print size and style affect both readability and reader retention. Similarly, the type and finish of the paper influence the reader. Select typeface and paper that attracts readers and works in harmony with the purpose and tone of your message.

Tip #11: Add greater interest to your writing by using personal words, pronouns, names of people, etc. You can further connect with your readers by using personal sentences, such as quoted dialogue, spoken sentences, questions, commands, requests, exclamations, etc.

Tip #12: Depending on what you are writing and for what reason, it may be suitable to use a short slogan to convey information in a memorable way. "Take a break between exercises" is more effective than, "During a series of long exercises, take a 15 minute break to slow down your heart rate." The former statement also uses "basic sight words" and can be read by anyone with a primary-grade reading ability.

Tip #13: Break up long stretches of narrative passages with bold or italicized subtitles and/or captions. Captions and subtitles allow the reader to comprehend major points and digest your material more easily.

Tip #14: Highlight important ideas and terms with boldface type, italics or sentence indentions.

Tip #15: Love whitespace. Leaving plenty of white space around black text is inviting. Crowding a page with blocks of text makes it look more confusing to a low-level reader.

Tip #16: Make technical terms look more easy to read. You can do this by adding a phonetic pronunciation or a similar-sounding word in parentheses to help the reader familiarize himself with the word.

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