Readability: Who Are You Writing For?

by in Articles on 10th Oct 2011 · Comments

Readability is how well your text can be understood on first reading and is an important factor in how well your site will be received. As a skill within copywriting, creating or editing content to be easier to read will give your designs a competitive edge.

Readability: Who Are You Writing For?


It has many aspects from the layout of the text on the page to use of fonts, amount of whitespace etc. The aspect I’m looking at here is the actual words used on the page and how they are put together.

Copywriting is an essential skill for designers and developers because sometimes the content supplied by a client, if it’s supplied at all is less than it could be. The client may be highly skilled in their field but if they’re not a trained communicator – or don’t have one on their staff then you have to fulfil this task.

Where Does It Come From?

Readability is a factor in usability - 'use the simplest language possible'. This also helps accessibility because appealing to the widest possible audience is not only the right thing to do but also makes good business sense.

All too often website owners make assumptions about what people will know about the subject...'They’re a very clever company - and feel the need to prove it!'

As an example of expert knowledge confusing ordinary visitors, take a read of the following paragraph explaining the rules of cricket.

Cricket

You have two sides, one out in the field and one in. Each man that's in the side that's in goes out, and when he's out he comes in and the next man goes in until he's out. When they are all out, the side that's out comes in and the side that’s been in goes out and tries to get those coming in, out. Sometimes you get men still in and not out. When a man goes out to go in, the men who are out try to get him out, and when he is out he goes in and the next man in goes out and goes in.

There are two men called umpires who stay out all the time and they decide when the men who are in are out. When both sides have been in and all the men have been out, and both sides have been out twice after all the men have been in, including those who are not out, that is the end of the game!

Although humorous, the point here is that what seems simple to one person may be very complicated to someone who is unfamiliar with the subject.

As designers we’re the visitors’ representative to the client, so knowing nothing about the client’s subject is a really good position to be in. If we don’t understand the content, then you could assume that visitors may not either. In reality, there are always going to be exceptions to this general rule, for example: service details for mass spectrometers, a tutorial for Photoshop, flight navigation details etc.

Having content with better readability will benefit everyone. If a visitor doesn’t understand the site’s content will they persist to try and make sense of it, or just move on to the next site in the list?

  • Readability is a factor in usability and accessibility
  • If you don’t understand your client’s content, the site’s visitors may not either

How It's Made

Crafting effective copy requires many individual elements to come together. Let’s look at some of these to see what the factors affecting the factors are!

Sentence Length

In the 1880’s Professor, L.A.Sherman identified that historically, during Elizabethan times, that’s the first Queen Elizabeth, (1533 – 1603), sentences were on average 50 words long. Having recently seen a brilliant production of Hamlet, a mediaeval whodunit, I found that the length of some of the speeches left me gasping for breath. Have a look through the script, Play Script Hamlet. Hamlet was written between 1599 and 1601 and was by all contemporary accounts a popular play in its day.

In his own time Sherman found that sentence lengths had on average decreased to 23 words. This can be illustrated from a play called 'The Magistrate' by Arthur Wing Pinero which was apparently a highly successful farce and first performed in 1885. A scan of the script, The magistrate: a farce in three acts illustrates that sentences are indeed much shorter than in Hamlet. The plays may not be directly comparable for all sorts of reasons, but you’ll get the idea.

In the pre-internet, pre-text world (who could imagine such a thing!), popular stage plays are a good example of readily accessible culture and those that were successful are probably a reasonable measure of the state of the language at that time.

It is reasonable to assume that in the current generation, 'generation-@' as it has been dubbed, sentences are on average even shorter.

In a blog about writing, Strainindex Nirmaldasan quotes the Oxford Guide to Plain English identifying that on average now, sentence length should be about 15-20 words.

From 50 words to 20 or fewer, sentence length has dropped by 60% in 400 years. Incidentally, that last sentence was 16 words long.

Could we expect that they will reduce even further? The efficiency of English, or any other language would only improve if the ability of individual words to express ideas and convey meaning improves, which would require the invention or creation of new words.

One of the strengths of English is that it borrows from other languages, so over time, better ways of conveying a concept seem to get adopted from other languages. Every year the Oxford English dictionary publishes the latest words to be included.

Conversely, some words get dropped from dictionaries as their usage fades from current use. Recently 'Aerodrome' was dropped from the Collins English dictionary as it isn’t used frequently enough in common parlance. Aim for a sentence length of 15 - 20 words.

Sentence Structure

A simple sentence.

The cat sat on the mat.

Cat Door

A complex sentence.

The cat, while on the mat, meditated, Zen like, on the nature of doors and the relationship to their staff (humans) with regard to the frequency of opening and the amount of concentration required to bring about this state.

There are a number of different types of sentence structure.

The sentence structure of your content should be determined by the audience or audiences. It is important to know who they are and what they are looking for.

If sentences are too complex or have too difficult a structure, then you will lose your audience, it is possible to create bad readability by writing too simply. I would suggest that as a general rule the acronym SMILE – Simple Makes It Lots Easier is a good rule to follow.

English 101: What is a Sentence?

Sentences are made of clauses; a simple sentence will have one clause.

E.g. England is a lovely country

The clause makes a statement or asks a question.

E.g. Is the weather nice today?

A compound sentence will have two or more independent clauses joined by a conjunction.

E.g. England is a lovely country but the weather could be nicer!

We only tend to write simple sentences in bullet points. Anybody who has suffered 'death by PowerPoint' will know this. In general text we write in very complex sentences and do it without thinking.

Many people write copy as a ‘stream of consciousness’ and end up writing very long convoluted sentences with multiple clauses joined by numerous conjunctions. I hold myself up as a bad example of this. It may take a while, but you will be doing your visitors a great service by trying to untangle this knitting. If I was writing the copy for a commercial website rather than a chatty article in a blog, I would of course write in a much different style.

If like me, it’s been a while (or longer) since you had any formal training in your native language, then a quick reminder of good sentence structure could be beneficial.

For English, Towson University (Maryland, USA) has an online writing support site with support for just about every aspect of writing you could need. There is a very useful section on sentence structure.

We also tend to use a lot of 'fluff' and pointless constructions as well as using excessively large words where a single word will do better.

Original Twaddle Slimmed down
In order to to
Due to the fact that because
As a result of because

Furthermore, office jargon is used without thinking, we all do it and who knows where it comes from as it spreads virally. If you are trying to convey a message, especially to a potentially international audience, it is best avoided. The Ridiculous Business Jargon Dictionary has a jargon dictionary which has got some hilarious bits of corporate twaddle, waffle and fluff, a few examples of which I know I use! If however you start detecting these coming into copy for your client’s website then there is a danger that the copy could end up as a 'warm-bowl-of-nothing!'.

The best resource I believe for simplified English is The Plain English Campaign. They have thousands of examples of the bad, the ugly and even worse. I fully endorse The Plain English Campaign.

  • Avoid overly complicated and convoluted sentences
  • Brush up on your technical knowledge of your language

What Really Bugs Me...

Incorrect capitalisation

I am as Guilty as Anyone in Capitalising the Wrong words in a Sentence.

Read these rules and apply at grammarbook.

Quotes

Did he say it or did I read it? In a text, how do you separate what people say from what is quoted from a document?

For one organisation I worked for, the house style was that if it was said,

"Bring me my chariot of fire" they sang...
..then it is in double quotes.

If it is a text quotation

...in the second verse of the hymn Jerusalem 'Bring me my chariot of fire'
...Then it is in single quotes.

The reader can easily see which is which instead of having to determine this from the context of what has been written.

My absolute current pet hate

Train station. Gah! It’s a Railway station! It is a Station on the Railway where trains stop. People – my son especially comes up with the false argument that the type of place has to be consistent across types of transport. They don’t need to agree – they’re different. There is no need for consistency. If it was a trainway I’d readily agree but it isn’t. Railway station Callum, railway station!

Railway Station
Image credit: SoGood

What I’m trying to say is that we very easily fall into ‘fashionable’ constructions and usages to appear current and modern. Who already says “LOL” as a real word? My children do all the time, I wouldn’t dream of using it. For me it really jars but this is the evolution of the language in action. Dinosaurs like me will always stick to what they grew up with and resist for the most part new fangled ideas. It is just this sort of thing that has enabled sentences to become shorter over the last 400 years.

Charting the history of English, we borrow many words from French, Latin, Greek, Spanish, German, Dutch, the Indian Sub-continent and almost everywhere else. In this era of globalisation where with the internet, distance has no meaning, will we ultimately end up with just one language that is an amalgam of every other? Will using the global language be a sign of high status where using a single national language be an indication of a lower economic status? Time will tell.

What I meant to say was...

I’m sure we have all come across sentences with unintended meanings where the writer meant one thing but the reader sees something else.

There is the apocryphal advert often quoted…

For Sale: Large dog, eats anything, loves children.

While I was on holiday recently with my family, we got some take out from a 'Traditional Fish and Chip shop'. The food was excellent but, what we asked, are modern fish and chips? Or was it that the fish was traditional and the chips aren’t? Or perhaps the shop is traditional? It didn’t seem so at the time.

This also raises a point about international understanding.

  • In the UK we have chips; in the US they are fries.
  • In the US they have chips but in the UK we have crisps.
  • In the UK we may use Aluminium in the US they use Aluminum.
  • At the rear of my car I have a boot but in the US it would be a trunk.
  • To me a boot is also a tall piece of sturdy footwear and a trunk is something you would put large amounts of clothing into or is the dangly bit at the front of an elephant.
  • On my car I have tyres, in the US they would be tires.

Your readability by an international audience will be improved if you try to identify and work round words that may have different meanings in an international context.

Oxymora

Also where possible, do try to avoid oxymora – contradictions. We all know about Military intelligence. How about 'Eco-Tourism'...yee-hah! For the programmers among us, what about Advanced BASIC, hmmm.

  • Try to avoid fashionable constructs that may be not be understood.
  • Make sure your sentences don’t contain unintended meanings.
  • Check that the common words you used are used everywhere – or put the alternative in brackets.
  • Watch out for oxymora and avoid them.

Word complexity

Any publication, web or print will have its own writing style and this will in part depend on the assumed education level of their audience. Supermarket tabloids will write in a much simpler writing style than for example the Wall St Journal or the (London) Times using simpler sentences and less complicated words.

In the UK, the biggest selling daily newspaper by far is The Sun, List of newspapers in the United Kingdom by circulation.

If you follow the link and look down the list, you’ll find that the general level of education assumed of the readership increases. What you’ll also find is that in general the complexity of the language used also increases.

Antidisestablishmentarianism – is the longest non-technical or non-created word in the English language. A great one to remember for quizzes!

Sometimes it’s impossible not to use complicated words in a subject. Just as an aside, how many of you read antidisestablishmentarianism syllable by syllable just as our parents and teachers taught us to. Anti-dis-estab-lish-ment-arian-ism.

Are you asking your visitors to do the same? Do you think they will?

If you have to use a complex word, why not add the html abbr or acronym tags for a mouse-over full definition – be nice to your visitors especially if you have no choice but to use complex words that not all the audience may understand.

Seeing large complex words in text should ring alarm bells to the designer and wherever possible should be eliminated in favour of smaller easier to get on with text.

  • Use abbr and acronym tags to allow for an in page explanation of complex words.
  • Use simpler words where possible.

Document structure

Do we actually read a website? Mostly not. We’d probably read the first couple of paragraphs and skim read the rest. Hopefully you’ve actually read your way down to here.

Newspapers

If you read a newspaper – an actual foldable paper one, there are a couple of useful things to know.

  1. If you read into a lengthy editorial or in-depth article, the level of the detail increases the further down you go
  2. You could edit your way up the article chopping off paragraphs from the bottom without any great loss of understanding, still getting a complete story
  3. That they don’t tend to forward reference, that is a reference at the beginning of the article to something later on.

This is in general because the journalist writing the article could be asked for 1000 words on a subject but won’t actually know how many of those will get printed, the sub-editor in charge of the section may have to lose some copy to get another late-breaking story in, or to fit it around an advert. There does come a point however in editing up from the bottom where the heart of the article would be cut out. Obviously you couldn’t go beyond that point without compromising the article’s integrity.

On the web this is less prevalent as there is no limit to space but brevity and clarity make it easier for everyone, however, for general commercial websites the amount of text written per page is much less but should still abide to such copywriting rules as above.

Earlier, I mentioned unavoidable technical complexity such as in a Photoshop tutorial or service details. The hierarchy of details is that at the top of the article you get the general introduction, then an overview and then get further and further into the detail. If a visitor randomly lands on a page as a result of a search, then they need to quickly be able to understand where they are without being bombarded with technical stuff straight off.

One thing I loathe is the (mainly) self-improvement or the get-rich-quick scheme (oxymoron?) websites that have a single infinitely long page. They are the text equivalent of a double glazing salesman that just doesn’t ever leave or give up, brow beating the visitor into submission. Just don’t do it.

  • Write top down, the further you go, the more detail you get.
  • Allow for bottom up editing
  • Don’t forward reference, it may get edited out

Where next?

So, at this point, you’ve written and re-written your content to use smaller words in simpler sentences that are shorter but is that all? How would you know that you’ve achieved an improvement compared to just changing things? Is there an objective measure of readability?

There are many measures of readability and they will all have some benefit. Some are more complex than others to understand and use, but they will all aim at a similar outcome.

Make things clearer with fog!

In 1952 an American businessman, Robert Gunning devised a method of calculating readability for English text. The lower the score, the more widely a text will be understood. The score uses US school grades as its measure.

Fog

If a block of text gets a score of for example 12, then, in general, a 12th grade pupil (aged around 18) should be able to understand it. For more universal understanding then it’s desirable to have a lower score.

Read the Wikipedia article about the Fog Index. You’ll find a list of links at the bottom of the page which allow you to calculate the Fog Index of text.

I find that the Fog Index is as good a measure as many. You may choose to use a different measure such as Fletsch-Kincaid. If it helps you to create more understandable text, then whichever works for you.

You may be critical of Gunning as it was created over 60 years ago, how could it be relevant today? Although our language has evolved to use different words than in the 1950s, the basic structure has not, clause-conjunction-clause, subject-object agreement etc. If anything, language has simplified. Sentence length is shorter.

A practical example

To illustrate how this works, I took a random paragraph from the web such as the old About page of Onextrapixel.

Onextrapixel About Us Page

Onextrapixel, or more commonly known as OXP is a weblog dedicated to delivering useful, comprehensive and innovative information for designers and web developers. OXP was started by two very enthusiastic Singapore web developers and designers. OXP endeavours to present noteworthy tips, excellent tutorials, and web resources that any modern web follower will appreciate. You’ll find a vast variety of ingredients from tools that can enhance your workflow management to showcases of incredible web designs and inspiration.

... and run it through one of the online checker tools, it comes out with a score of 20.76. Ouch! Sorry guys.

Let’s get working on the readability of this paragraph.

The tool highlights the 1st sentence as being in need of work. This uses a lot of 'flowery' language to sell up the site and there are at least 20 complex words in this paragraph.

What message do I come away with? These guys love what they do which is fantastic. I read this as slightly tongue in cheek and lots of fun. The multi-syllable words could make it harder to read though.

First attempt on re-writing

Get rid of some of the long padding words but still build value into the text.

Onextrapixel, known as 'OXP' is a leading blog for web design professionals. It was created by Charlotte Lam and Terrance Huang, two very keen developers from Singapore. The objective of OXP is to showcase premium tips, tutorials and resources that all web designers and developers will find useful and interesting. You'll find a huge variety and mixture of ingredients that will allow you to cook up any flavour of web design.

Run this through the checker and it comes out as 13.86.

The 2nd sentence was highlighted as being in need of work and on reading, the reference to ingredients seems a bit out of context.

Second attempt

Working on longer and more complicated sentences

Onextrapixel, known as 'OXP' is a leading blog for web designers. It was created by Charlotte Lam and Terrance Huang, two very keen developers from Singapore. OXP's aim is to collect and share premium tips, tutorials, and resources. We hope that everyone will find something here that is useful and interesting.

This now comes out at 11.37.

The paragraph is not only much shorter and easier to read – to get the key message across quickly but is it good enough? Does it sell the site sufficiently? Are there adequate keywords in there for the search engines to work with?

I personally think it has gone a little too far in stripping back to the basics. Obviously the success of the site in search engines doesn’t depend solely on the About page, however, on the basis that people will land on random pages of a site depending on their search terms, then the first paragraph needs to have sufficient keywords in to work with.

Third attempt

With better keyword loading at the front of the paragraph.

Onextrapixel is a leading blog and resource site for web designers. OXP's aim is to collect and share premium tips, tutorials, tools and resources. We hope that everyone will find something here that is useful and interesting.

Charlotte Lam and Terrance Huang – Founders Onextrapixel

This comes out at 10.72, slightly better than previously and almost half the original. I also removed the 2nd sentence about Charlotte and Terrance and turned the paragraph into a pseudo-quote to retain the personal element.

Your writing style would probably come out with a different paragraph altogether and you may disagree totally with mine but what I’m demonstrating here in detail is the iterative method to improving readability.

You could also run the text through this page which calculates a number of different measures of readability side by side. The page has colour coded measures of readability. Green good, red bad.

  • Use a fog-index tool to check the readability of your content.
  • Iterative improvement is time consuming but gets easier with practice.

A contrarian view

If I’m trying to sell up a subject and give it a higher value wouldn’t using simpler language preclude this? It depends on how you do it. If you look at the websites of true luxury brands, then you’ll find that they don’t ‘sell up’ the brands – they don’t need to. Using ‘power words’ to sell up a subject can create suspicion in the minds of the visitor. If you try too hard it could look suspicious as though you’re trying to hide something. Do your client’s websites try too hard?

This all seems like a lot of work?

It could be to start however, but with practice it will become second nature and you will be able to greatly benefit your clients. Tidying content and making it efficient is an iterative process, you’ll probably need to have several goes at it.

Writing this article was exactly that process. I initially drafted it as a ‘stream of consciousness’ i.e. brain dump on to screen, then spent a while editing, expanding, contracting and reorganising the copy to make it sensible and easy to read with a reasonable structure. As submitted, this article had a fog index of 10.15. Phew!

Don’t forget that copy-improvement could be a value-added service. There are millions of websites out there with really badly written copy that could do with some polishing.

Going further, what else affects readability?

In this article, I’ve concentrated on words and how they are put together, fairly fundamental. Your choice of font style, size and layout is also going to be important if you want visitors to get on with your content.

If you write with 10pt italic script, right aligned, it’s going to be harder to get on with than the font we have here. I’m not advocating the design and style-free zone that is Jakob Nielsen’s site but to put the visitor first rather than the owner.

Conclusion: How do I adjust my writing to thin the fog out?

  • Aim to write sentences of 15-20 words but vary the length.
  • Use the simplest language possible to convey the message but write appropriately for the audience – they are not first-graders unless they are!
  • Write top down – you should be able to edit out paragraphs from the bottom of the article upwards without losing anything.
  • Don’t forward reference – the target of the reference may have been edited away, see above.
  • The further into the article you go, the more detail you should get.
  • Run your copy through a fog checker – aim for 12th grade or below
  • Cut down on multi-syllable words where possible
  • Simplify your sentences – don’t have complex convoluted structures.
  • 1 idea per paragraph.
  • Eliminate oxymora and unintended messages.
  • Don’t make assumptions about what your audience may know.
  • Check out any words that may have different meanings or understanding in an international context.

I hope I have been able to help you improve the content for your website and those of your clients whether you write in English or another language.

Expressing ideas and information in an efficient manner without confusing the reader is an important task in every website design, in any language.

Am I an exemplar of good readability? No. I need to try harder.

Part two of this article will analyse the websites of major companies to see if big company resources result in more readable websites.

It’s your turn: real world examples:

It’s really difficult to find bad examples of readability – there are no search criteria you can easily use to identify them. In the discussion, it would be great to hear about really good and really bad examples of readability on websites you know of.

Andrew is happy to help business get the best from the web producing imaginative solutions to practical problems and drawing on over 30 years experience in a variety of industries.