One crucial reason why people may stop reading your text—whether it’s a blog, a promotional flyer, an email, or anything else—is because they don’t understand it. This happens more often than you may think. And it’s a shame, because after all, you write to be read. The readability of your prose, then, is of crucial importance.
A mistake many make when they write a text is that they forget to take their targeted audience into account. More specifically, the reading ability of their intended readers.
Aspects of Readability
Many factors play a role in the readability of a text, so let’s look at these:
The author may know for instance what ‘effusive’ means, so he uses it to state the core message of his blog post. Alas, the intended audience doesn’t know this word, and the message does not come across. Bummer.
Using difficult words is one example of a low readability of a text, but there are more. Using words with many syllables, for instance. Sure, these often are difficult words, but they don’t even have to be. For people who struggle with reading, long words are hard—even when they do know the meaning.
Using passive constructions makes a text harder to read as well. Compare these two sentences:
The victim was given a punch by the assailant.
The assailant punched the victim.
The first sentence not only needs more words (passive constructions generally do), but many readers will need to read it again to make sure one understands who did what. The second is crystal clear. The recommendation is to keep your passive sentences under 10% of your total text.
No Transition Words
Transition words are incredibly helpful for readers to help following your line of reasoning. These are also known as signal words: words that count (first of all, secondly), state a cause (because, due to), compare (either, yet), emphasize (most importantly, crucial), or conclude (in conclusion, to summarize). Readable text contain enough of these transition words to help the reader follow where you’re going.
Long sentences also play a part. Even when you use simple words, longer sentences can make readers stumble. This is especially the case if you use a lot of punctuation, like commas, semi-colons, and (em)dashes. In general, the recommendation is to keep the sentences under 20 words and use a maximum of 25% of sentences with more than 20 words.
In the bigger picture, the length of paragraphs can determine whether or not a text is readable. Long paragraphs deter struggling readers (and even experienced readers, because of the sheer amount of words), whereas shorter paragraphs are easier to digest.
Big Chunks of Text
It’s not merely the actual amount of words and sentences—it’s also how you present them. That’s also why using subheadings helps to break up a text. Even if you have shorter paragraphs, it helps the reader if you break up the text with subheadings.
Little side note: all of the above reasons are a big factor in why many people struggle with reading the Bible. Many Bible books contain huge blocks of text with long sentences, difficult words, complicated reasoning (Paul!), and little subheadings.
To determine whether or not your text is readable, there are several tests you can do. Take the Gunning Fog Index for instance, a test that shows the number of years of education a reader hypothetically needs to understand the text. This readability test uses the following formula:
Reading Level (Grade) = (Average number of words in sentences + Percentage of words of three or more syllables) x 0.4
To give you an idea: The New York Times scores about an 11 to 12 on this index.
Other readability tests use variations on this formula. The Flesch-Kincaid Reading is one that’s also often used. It uses the following formula:
206.835-1.015(total words divided by total sentences)-84.6(total syllables divided by total words)
The higher this number, the easier a text is to read. For reference: anything above 60 is considered easy to read, anything under 30 is for graduates and really, really smart people only. (The Flesch score of this blog post is 63.1 by the way).
A different test is the passivity test, which simply counts the number of sentences with passive constructions and calculates a percentage of the total number of sentences.
These tests are not that simply to use, but there are several WordPress plugins who make checking your text’s readability easy for you. If you run a blog, I’d highly recommend using one. The fun thing is that once you’ve used it for a bit, you’ll start writing easier automatically. Like many things in life, it’s a habit that can be acquired.