Every word counts when you write text for the web. The moment readers have difficulty following you or are no longer engaged is the moment they click to another website. Because of this, you must focus on achieving readability and the right tone.
Readability is how easily visitors to your page can understand what you’ve written. Tone is the author’s attitude toward a subject, and we’ll focus on that in a separate blog entry.
Unfortunately, readability can be a moving target. Each visitor to your website reads at a different level while bringing unique experiences, personalities and expectations. So we can only talk in generalities here.
Optimum readability is writing at an eighth grade reading level, according to various studies. If your audience is well-educated (master’s and doctorate’s degrees) and your subject matter more serious than usual (say science, philosophy, or literary analysis), then you can aim for a 12th grade reading level. That doesn’t mean you write as if your reader is 13 or 18 years old, as doing so requires age-specific considerations about maturity and development levels. You would, however, use vocabulary and sentence structures that a typical person of that age could easily read.
To strike the right level and readability for a general audience – 8th grade reading level – follow these four basic standards.
You want to be plainspoken. That means no jargon, no acronyms, and probably no prosaic passages. If you have to use jargon or insider words, then you could include their definition in parentheses. You’ll also want to use short sentences, as long sentences can strain the reader’s memory. A lot of subordinate clauses and conjunctions simply make a sentence difficult to follow. As a side note, shorter sentences offer the advantage of making your writing sound more authoritative; readers often infer a lot of hedging in long sentences.
Hence, rather than write…
Generally, thru-hikers on the PCT can use one of two types of hiking backpacks – frameless and pack frame, the latter of which can be divided into two kinds, external and internal – as they hit the verdant mountain trails weaving beneath a brilliant turquoise heaven. (19th grade reading level)
Generally, Pacific Crest Trail hikers can use either a frameless or pack frame backpack. Pack frames in turn come in two types, external and internal. (9th grade reading level)
Use active voice
Avoid passive voice, which uses is, am, are, was, were, be or being as your sentence’s main verb. In contrast, active voice makes your sentences sound less bureaucratic and formal. Indeed, passive voice unnecessarily lengthens your sentence. So, instead of writing This study was conducted on 168 young pigs in an authentic farm environment over a 26-week period by researchers from America and Australia, go with America and Australian researchers studied 168 young pigs in an authentic farm environment over 26 weeks.
Use memorable phrases
The more you can compress complex points into simple maxims, the better. Readers are more likely to remember short, pithy statements than your point-by-point, detailed explanation of a concept. So don’t write To act civilized out in the wilds, as a hiker always minimize damage to your surroundings but instead Leave no trace.
Your writing needs to stay on point. That means no rambling or telling long stories. Always remember that the visitor wants to quickly learn you main points not go in-depth or study side issues. If the above “Sound conversational” point had included as 12-sentence anecdote about the time I wrote a really long, rambling sentence and got a bunch of emails asking me what I meant, then I’d have wandered. Cut that kind of writing from your web text.
Getting your text to be more readable can be a challenge at first, but it’s really just a matter of identifying these four issues. Always edit your piece looking for such problems. You then can run your article through any of a number of free online readability apps and continue to revise if necessary. In fact, this article started at a 13th grade readability and after a revision is down to 10th grade readability.
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