‘Readability’ just means how easy a piece of text is to read and understand.
Content developers are sometimes asked to write for a certain ‘readability level’, as determined by readability checkers. The readability level is usually provided as the level of schooling required to read the text – for example, ‘grade 9 readability’. The Australian Government’s Digital Transformation Agency recommends that information for the general public should have a readability level of grade 7 or below.
Readability checkers often judge readability based on the lengths of words and sentences in a text. But this can be because they are easy to measure, not because they are a real measure of readability.
For example, readability checkers often assume that shorter words are easier to read. But words with the same number of letters may be easy or quite difficult: compare clock with diode. Similarly, it is assumed that short sentences are easier to understand. But variability in sentence lengths can actually help to engage readers.
The readability of content is affected by more than the lengths of words and sentences. It’s about how the whole text fits together and communicates to the reader. Readability also depends on:
- How familiar the words are to the reader and whether key words are repeated to provide threads of meaning
- How familiar the sentence structure and grammar are to the reader
- How individual sentences build on each other within paragraphs
- How sections and headings are used to break text up into meaningful chunks
- Whether meaning is developed through a logical structure and flow of information
All of these should be considered to make sure text is easy to understand. It’s also important to test the text with the intended audience – testing can often reveal issues that readability checkers can miss.
Readability checkers are not all equal
Most readability checkers are built around common readability tools, such as the Flesch–Kincaid tool (which is built into Microsoft Word and other checkers) or the SMOG tool (which stands for simple measure of gobbledegook).
But research by Macquarie University and Biotext found that different readability checkers deliver different results for the same text. SMOG-based checkers consistently rated texts as harder to read than Flesch–Kincaid-based checkers. Even different brands based on the same tool delivered different results: different brands using the Flesch–Kincaid tool rated the same text up to 2 grades different, and different brands using the SMOG tool rated the same text up to 4 grades different.
This highlights the need for benchmarking. You can set your benchmark by testing your text with members of your audience. When you’ve achieved readability to meet their needs, use your checker to see what readability level it lists. You can use this level to check future text for this audience (but only using the same readability checker!).
Testing will also give you successful samples of text that you can compare with new content to make sure you are using the same tone and level of detail.
Writing for the web
Readability is often focused on writing for the web. Writing for the web follows the basic rules of clear, logical writing. However, web content has some important requirements in structure and format, based on how people use the web.
Studies that track users’ eyes as they read a webpage show that people tend to read in an ‘F’ pattern. They read the first paragraph or 2, then skim down the left-hand side of the content. Attention is also drawn to headings, bullet lists and hyperlinks.
To improve the readability of your web content, you can:
- Use an ‘inverted pyramid’ construction – load the most important information at the top of the page
- Write clear and informative headings – start with keywords instead of ‘a’, ‘the’ or ‘an’
- Write in plain English – use active voice and simple words that people can relate to
- Summarise – people will leave the site if they can’t quickly find what they need
- Use structure to help users find what they need – dot points and shorter paragraphs help people quickly scan for the information they want; even single-sentence paragraphs are OK to draw attention to key points that might otherwise be buried
- Use numerals (1, 2, 3), not words (one, two, three) – numerals help people quickly identify numbers in the text
- Include clear calls to action – talk directly to users and suggest what they can do in a simple way – for example, on a health webpage, instead of saying ‘Medical professionals can provide guidance on the equipment available’, you can write ‘Talk with your doctor about equipment that could help you.’
If you would like to improve the readability and effectiveness of your content, help is available:
- Biotext are content experts specialising in communicating complex content, including health and biomedical science, environment and agriculture. We provide content strategy and design, writing, editing, information design, data visualisation and infographics.
- A training course in Writing and editing complex content is coming up in June, with more courses to be scheduled later in the year, including Fundamentals of data literacy and visualisation.
- The Australian manual of style is an online resource that provides practical information on how to engage your audience, and write, edit and show information.