Digital readability strategies aim to improve clarity and ease of understanding of online content. However, they can also be adapted to improve readability of books, articles, white papers and other publishable materials. There are six ways to improve readability of your manuscript, including explaining complex or unfamiliar vocabulary to the reader, avoiding jargon, using varying sentence length, organising the text using headings and subheadings, paying attention to active voice and polishing the translated texts.
If you are an author, you may think that readability scores are only important for content editors and bloggers. But there are lessons that writers can learn from the digital community to promote their books online, reach and interact with the readers and, above all, improve their prose. So, after reading this post, you will learn why readability is essential and how to use six strategies to improve readability of your text.
What is readability and why is it important?
The Center for Plain English explains, ‘readability is about making your digital content clear and easy to understand.’ From the eagle eye’s perspective, readability is about communicating your ideas in a clear and accessible way. I dare to say that is a skill every writer, whether a content creator or a published author, should have under their belt.
Many proven strategies for improving text readability are strictly applicable to digital content. If that is what you are after, there are plenty of resources online, for instance, this blog post from readable.
In summary, you can improve readability of your content by using:
- easy and short words,
- simple sentence structures,
- active voice,
- headings, subheadings, and paragraphs,
- fewer adjectives and adverbs.
Because I work with publishable materials, primarily academic, non-fiction and popular science texts, I adapted these strategies to texts that do not necessarily depend on the online presence to the same extent. Such works may include books, journal articles, and business materials such as white papers.
Six strategies to improve readability of your text
I have listed six ways that, like the above list of digital readability improvement strategies, may make your writing better in the eyes of your reader, the SEO tools and the readability score tests. You can also download them as a pdf checklist at the bottom of this page.
1. Explain complex or unfamiliar vocabulary.
One of the canonical strategies of readability is to use short and easy words. Granted — you can strive to use shorter words to convey your point. But this might not always work or even be desired in the professional or academic literature that explains complicated ideas. Still, providing your reader with a helping hand will be appreciated. In this case, you have a few options, and you could:
- enclose a definition in parentheses,
- follow up with an em dash and an explanation or a synonym,
- use a footnote (or endnote, but in my view, they are inefficient to use in print materials).
2. Avoid jargon.
Even if writing a specialised publication targeting a knowledgeable audience, you should minimise using professional terminology. It will make your writing more comprehensible to a lay readership and attract more readers, for instance, among university students just beginning to learn about your subject matter.
3. Vary sentence length.
Digital content experts will advise you to use short sentences. But you might want to consider a combination of short, medium and long sentences to keep the reader engaged. The following visual (found on LinkedIn) shows how dynamic sentence length improves the delivery of your message:
If you struggle with short sentences like me, keep your message organised and easy to follow. Communicating only one idea per sentence is the simplest way to achieve it. This trick may help to:
- manage the flow of your text,
- improve the clarity,
- bring the most prominent points to the fore.
4. Organise your text.
Another method of improving clarity and readability is neatly organising the body of the text. Yoast, an SEO tool, advises that ‘most texts of over 300 words need subheadings, to help readers scan the text.’ That is why digital writers use a clear styling hierarchy to indicate the rank of their paragraphs by applying headings and subheadings.
However, I would suggest a paragraph can contain as many sentences as it takes to communicate one idea clearly and efficiently.
Other benefits of organising the text in such a way, particularly for publishable texts, concern working with an editor.
5. Use active voice?
There are many pros of using active voice in your text:
- it may make your text appear more dynamic,
- it may improve the readability score,
- it may underline your authority as a subject matter expert,
- it may make your text sound more personal and help the reader trust you.
But, in academic, scientific, business and technical writing, it is common to default to the passive voice, and sometimes, indeed, it is an appropriate choice. I would generally say consider what you are trying to emphasise in the sentence — the what (passive) or the who (active). You can also try rephrasing the sentence in the active/passive voice and decide what sounds clear and better conveys your message.
However, there is a noticeable shift towards active voice usage even in the academic community. Recently, I have seen some peer-reviewed journals advising against using passive voice in manuscripts. For instance, the Journal of Agriculture, Food Systems, and Community Development, for which I have copyedited a submission, prefers a writing style that ‘uses the active voice.’
6. Take care of the translation.
When working with even the most skilled translator, some things can get lost in translation. Not to mention using Google Translate or other online free tools — using these is a recipe for disaster. For instance, I often edit texts originally written in Chinese and translated into English. In these projects, I work closely with the original and the translated text, called translation editing. I check the translation for accuracy against the original text, ensure the translation is idiomatic and grammatical, and then copyedit or proofread it. So working with a bilingual editor can help you improve readability of the text.
Below you will find a checklist which you can use next time you question the clarity and readability of your writing. It includes the classic digital readability improvement strategies and six tips that guide you to improve readability of publishable texts. For more editing tips for writers, follow me on Mastodon, Twitter and LinkedIn sign up to my newsletter or contact me for a free sample edit (and remember to use my early bird discount!).