We write so that others will read.

No matter what we write — an email, a newsletter article, a research paper — we want people to read it and understand.

The key to understanding isn’t some complex formula. It’s actually quite simple: a form of writing called “plain language.” Plain language conveys meaning in short, spare sentences and simple words. Plain language is:

  • Accessible. Plain language helps us reach everyone, including people with learning or other disabilities, people whose first language is not English, and people who may be reading online while feeding a toddler and waiting on hold with the cable company.
  • Active. In active voice, the subject of the sentence performs the action: “The mouse ate the cookie,” not “it is believed the cookie was consumed by the mouse.”
  • The law. Government agencies like the IRS and the state of Oregon have adopted plain language guidelines. OSU websites should follow web accessibility guidelines, including those on readability.

There’s an app for that

Oddly, it’s hard to write simply.

Thankfully, some great new tools can help us measure and improve the readability of our text. One we like is called Hemingway Editor.

Start with a rough draft. Call up Hemingway in your browser, and copy and paste your text into the home screen. You’ll see a screen like this:

Zero in on the figure that denotes the reading level of your text. If it’s ninth grade or higher, start working your way up the Hemingway rainbow:

  • Clean up everything in light red. Cut unnecessary words. Divide complex sentences in two. Sub in some active verbs.
  • After pink, tackle yellow.
  • Re-check the reading level. Is it lower? Good job.
  • If the reading level is nine or above, keep working. Most audiences — including academics — prefer to read at an eighth grade level or below. Great writers like Jane Austen, Ernest Hemingway and J.R.R. Tolkien all wrote at the seventh grade level or below.

Make reading easy

Many readers today don’t read but instead scan written material. They’re looking for solutions in a hurry. Here are some ways to help these readers out:

  • Avoid long paragraphs. Long blocks of gray text turn readers off. Limit your paragraphs to one topic — about three sentences.
  • Use bulleted lists instead of long sentences filled with commas.
  • Use bold-faced lead-ins and subheads to help readers scan your text to find what they are looking for.
  • Read it out aloud. Before turning in anything to an editor or colleague, read it out aloud. You’ll be surprised how many awkward phrases you’ll find to revise.

Writing is hard, but reading doesn’t have to be. Use the tools of plain language to tell your story, and your readers will thank you.

Editor’s note: This article is written at a fifth-grade level.

More blog posts to come:

  • Science writing simplified: improving the readability of complex topics
  • The ABCs of acronyms
  • Tempting titles that click with readers

Authors: Janet Donnelly and Jim Sloan

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