Readabilty in Communication
Writing effective copy is an important part of most business, organization, or personal endeavors. But, copy is only as effective as it is readable. The question is: Are you optimizing your copy readability?
Readability refers to the ease in which text can be read and understood. It’s an important aspect of communication that directly impacts the effectiveness of any written work—be it a blog, brochure, training manual, or whatever. If the reader finds your information difficult to read or understand, you’ve failed as a copywriter.
When writing any piece of information, readability should be considered. Studies on readability have been conducted publicly since the mid 1930s. Over the years it has been shown that readability is most affected by four factors: content, style, design, and organization. Let’s take a look at these.
- Content: What you write must be important to your readers, if you expect them to read what you’ve written. You can’t appeal to all readers, but you can write for a target audience. Do your homework and write about what your readers want to know. Also important is the length of the piece. In a study published by Wilbur Schramm in 1947, it was discover that a newspaper story nine paragraphs long would lose three out of ten readers by the fifth paragraph. A shorter story would lose only two. This is probably true now more than ever with today’s busy readers.
- Style: According to William Dubay‘s e-book, Smart Language, most adults read at an eighth grade reading level. This means if you want to reach the masses, you must keep your writing style simple and easy to understand. You can do this by keeping sentences short, words familiar, and concepts relatively simple. There are several readability formulas that have been developed to help writers and educators write copy to fit a specific reading level.
Many of these are available in software that allows you to copy and paste text to be evaluated and scored. Even Microsoft Word comes with a form of readability assessment. You can access it by clicking on Tools, choosing Spelling and Grammar, then clicking on the Options button. Check the Show Readability Statistics and Word will report on the readability of each document you spell check. You probably won’t use any of these programs unless you are writing educational materials or training resources, but it’s nice to know they are there.
- Format: Use subheads, bold-face paragraphs, and bullets to break up a story sparingly. Too much can cause a reader to lose interest or to skip over vital information. However, used appropriately these elements can aid readers in accessing and digesting the information. Most readers read articles, stories, and webpages in stages. First, they skim the content to see if it interests them, then they may read over the information again to pick out what they want to know. If the content is good, they may return to read the piece again, this time all the way through. This entire process can take just a few minutes, but understanding that it happens can help you hook a reader by formatting the information in a pleasing way.
- Organization: People read faster and retain more when text is organized into topics. A visible plan for presenting content shows how the parts of the text are related and helps readers assess the text and blend new information with what they know already. The text should flow easily and build on itself. Internet readers are especially drawn to short snippets of information that are easy to skim and digest.
Personally, I would add a fifth element to this list: Design. The way text is presented visually plays a particularly important role in its readability. The color of the copy and the color of the background are important choices. Red copy on a black background makes reading copy difficult and frustrating. As boring as it may seem, dark lettering (black most commonly) on a light background (or white) is the easiest to read. Font size and style are also significant contributors. Keep text size large enough to be seen easily and font styles simple and distinct.
Another thing writer tend to ignore is the effective use of white space and size of column width. Avoid columns that span the width of the page or website. This helps readers keep their place in their reading. Also leaving white space gives the reader’s eyes a place to rest. Too much solid copy can be daunting to some readers. Keep this in mind as you design your written pieces.
You don’t need a degree in education to write copy that is easy and enjoyable to read. But with a little effort and practice you can make your copy more readable and reach your target audience in a more effective way.
Dubay, W. H. 2007. Smart Language: Readers, Readability, and the Grading of Text. Costa Mesa, CA: Impact Information. p. 4.
Schramm, W. 1947. “Measuring another dimension of newspaper readership.” Journalism quarterly 24:293–306.
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