There were no readability guidelines when I started writing on the web in 1998. There was enough awe and wonder (and piles of shitty sites) that bad writing and zero standards had their way.
But today, there’s no shortage of reader-friendly sites competing for our attention. We need to be more thoughtful if we want our audiences to keep coming back for more.
When I left teaching, in hopes of filling my bank account with writing (and content strategy) gigs, I knew I couldn’t lean on a strong writing voice alone. I needed my work to be web-friendly and readable. So I set out to learn ALL THE THINGS.
A resource that became a favourite is, Quick Fixes for Business Writing: An Eight-Step Editing Process to Find and Correct Readability Problems by Jim Taylor. It’s brilliant and crazy helpful.
Jim’s techniques aren’t specific to digital writing, but they certainly apply. He talks about chunking text, writing top down, and simplifying language—which all cater to the skimming-scanning behaviours of online readers.
Apply just one of his steps, and your readers will thank you.
1. Shorten sentences
“We no longer have the mental energy to deal with complexity.”
The ideal sentence length is 20 words or fewer. Once you figure out about how many lines that takes up, scan for long sentences and shorten those suckers. Your content will instantly read better.
Be kind to your distracted, busy reader. Make it easy to consume your words. Simple sentences are a great exercise in writing for clarity. Anyone feel like Twitter has made them a better web writer? Me too!
Grammar Girl has a helpful post on writing short, clear sentences.
2. Take out the trash
“People insert little bits of trash into their speech to give their brains time to catch up with their mouths.”
Our first drafts will always be full of extra wordage. Here are six kinds of junk to delete or replace:
Words that waste space: - in regards to - in order to - so to speak - I’m writing to tell you that - as per - provided that
Jargon and marketing speak
If you can’t avoid industry jargon, explain it. Always. And if you can’t avoid marketing speak, try harder.
Words that mean more or less the same: - past history - future forecast - sorry tragedy - orbit around
Words that contradict: - tight leggings - exact estimate
Writing in the negative forces readers take two steps, instead of one. When I write “The woman was not happy,” my readers must: 1. imagine the positive—a happy woman 1. imagine its alternative—dismiss the idea of a happy woman and imagine one who is… angry? Confused? Gassy?
As a teacher, I kept instructions positive to avoid confusion. “Don’t run in the hall” is too easy for young, distractible ears to hear as RUN IN THE HALL AS FAST AS YOU CAN. “Walk in the hall” is better for everyone’s blood pressure.
Look for that
This isn’t in Jim’s book, but it’s one of my go-to hacks. I search my draft for the word “that” and read the sentence aloud. If it makes sense without the “that”, I trash it.
3. Deflate fat words
“Most long words start as simple words. But many writers assume that complex thoughts can only be expressed in complex words. So they inflate their words to sound more educated.”
Jim talks about finding a common vocabulary by removing suffixes and prefixes. If drilling down to the root word makes your sentence funky, replace it with a clear synonym.
There’s a handy chart in the book that looks something like this:
Original word Shortened word Possible synonyms permeability permeable, permeate sponge, leaky, throughout notification notify note, tell, inform, news amplification amplify increase, enhance, explain
“You don’t have to deflate every word to improve clarity. Simplifying a few key words—often the ones that lead off a sentence or statement, especially in a point-form list—may be all that’s necessary.”
Jim calls this step “coming down to a common vocabulary.” I’ve come to know it as Plain Language: “writing designed to ensure the reader understands as quickly and completely as possible.” Plain language pushes the use of everyday words to make your meaning clear.
4. Untangle the knots
“Each long word by itself may be perfectly understandable. But when lumped together with other long words, they lull the mind to sleep.”
A friend and I were working on something that read: “Learn how to navigate through complex situations and overcome organizational contexts.” The middle of that sentence has a pile up of fat words with four, three, and FIVE syllables!
Friends. We just sent our readers into a coma.
So we worked our editing magic: “Learn how to handle complex situations and adapt to change.” Better, right? There’s nothing wrong with big words, just spread ‘em out.
5. & 6. Eliminate the equations and Activate the passives
“You will never get rid of every ‘is’ or ‘was.’ But use any form of the verb ‘to be’ as little as possible.”
I’m clumping 5 and 6 together because they both address the use of the verb “to be.” In these steps, Jim talks about the ways equating and passive verbs suck the energy from your writing and make your readers work harder.
The active voice, “Shannon loves Steve,” becomes passive when changed to, “Steve is loved by Shannon.” Passive voice isn’t wrong, but it can be wordy, awkward, and tricky to understand. It packs less punch.
In my Writing for the Web workshop, I train content creators to use active voice 80–90% of the time. Passive voice works when: - You want to soften a message: “Your power has been shut off,“ is less offensive than, “We have shut off your power.” - You’re not sure (or don’t want to say) who did what: Every politician has probably said, “Mistakes were made,” instead of, “I made mistakes.”
The passive voice always comes with the verb “to be.” Search your document for is, am, are, was, were, be, been, or being and find where you’re confusing readers and lulling them to sleep. Then fix it!
7. Lead with strength
“Set aside your preconceptions about how to organize your text. Think instead about your readers. Who are they? What do they care about? Then skim through your text until you find the one thing—an incident, a story, a fact, a problem—that will reach off the page, grab those readers by their lapels, and demand that they pay attention.”
Online readers skim and scan in an F-shaped pattern to see if pages have what they’re looking for. If you open with long, passive sentences, packed with fat, filler, jargony junk—your readers will move on.
So put the most important information at the top. Grab their attention and hold it. Delight them.
8. Parade paragraphs and tune up topic sentences
“Today, with continually declining attention spans, we add even more visual breaks—sub-headings, one or more per page—to lure straying readers back into our clutches. Each new visual break—whitespace, illustration, sub-heading—offers a new beginning.”
If your paragraphs are too long, readers skip them in search of snackier ones. So make sure they’re bite-sized, manageable chunks. Depending on column width, max them out around three sentences. When I blog, I often have one-sentence or even one-word paragraphs.
And because paragraphs keep people reading, make sure those topic sentences are delicious. Skimmers and scanners won’t read past that first sentence. Can you read the first line of every paragraph and get a decent understanding of the piece?
Yes? Then you’re doing it right, my friend.
Unnecessary words, jargon, complicated language, and big blocks of text slows readers down. Pick one of these steps and make your writing magical. The world wide interwebs will name HTML tags after you. Or something. Probably.
Get your words on the page
I have a hard time letting myself write a shitty first draft. There’s this part of me that’s terrified someone’s reading over my shoulder, judging the ick. So I have this terrible habit of interrupting my own creative process, editing as I write.
I swear Jim Taylor grabbed my face, squared his eyes up with mine and said this directly to my writer heart:
“Don’t expect to apply the Eight-Step process to your thinking, before you start writing. And don’t—under any circumstances—try to apply the steps as you write.
Writing and editing are two different processes. Writing is creative; editing is critical. Writing is wholistic; editing is analytic. So first write. Get the thoughts out, and get them down. Then edit.”
Grab Jim’s book from Amazon or borrow a copy from your library. It’s packed with gobs of goodness. And, as you can imagine, it’s a readable read.