Readability: Writing for a wider audience

Readability wasn’t a word that was thrown around much back in my creative writing department at college, but if you asked I probably would have said I was pretty good at it. My professors and classmates liked my writing, what more was there to it? However, once I switched from writing stories to writing articles, I discovered my work was failing in a Readability plugin in WordPress. I thought I wrote well; my use of semicolons was always impeccable. My score remained solidly in the red despite my flawless grammar.

What was happening? Well, it turns out writing articles is a bit different than writing novellas. Most articles are written at an eighth-grade reading level. That means shorter sentences and simple goals. An article should convey a single idea—and do it all with active verbs, thank you very much. If you write for a wide audience, you must adjust your style accordingly.

Initially I resisted changing my style. The last thing I wanted to do was lose my voice or dumb down my message. I was writing for adults after all, and I didn’t want to talk down to them. I soon realized that optimizing my work for readability didn’t have to do either. Readability should only ever improve your writing, making your message clearer to read and easier to remember for a diverse group of people moving in a fast-paced world.

So how do you write a successful article? Here are some helpful tips I have learned along the way.

Write what people want to read.

You should always write towards an audience. This helps guide your topic and your style. If there is a technical topic you need to convey, hide it behind a fun premise, like broccoli under your kid’s mashed potatoes. Remember, not everyone shares the same interests as you. When you pick a topic, stand in your audience’s shoes.

Write with abandon

Now that you’ve nailed down a topic, land solidly back in your shoes and bang that thing out. Rough drafts cannot, and should not, be final drafts. Don’t slow yourself down by editing your work before it has a chance to get on the page. Readability is important, but not at this stage in the process.

Review your own work

After you’ve written your draft, take a step back and read it aloud. Ideas you thought were clear in your head may be muddled once on paper. Make sure the paragraphs flow smoothly. Make sure the darn thing actually makes sense. And double check if you started every other sentence with the word “however”, the poor word might need a rest.

Give it up

Having others review your work ALWAYS improves it. If that means taking it all the way back to the drawing board, so be it. Better to have it happen at this stage in process before going through all the work of editing for readability. Your writing is not your baby, it is your product. It needs to be crafted, not coddled.

Review for readability

Finally we’ve come to readability. It is not our first step, but it is a crucial one. Are your sentences all long? All short? Does your article sound natural read aloud? Even if the topic is great, the article makes sense, and the grammar is correct, it can be improved. Vary your sentence lengths. Don’t use $10 words unless you have a reason. Do use transition words to help with the flow. Search for the words “be’’, “been” “am”, and “was” before your main verbs. Passive voice may sound natural in conversation, but it makes your writing bloated and sluggish. Slash it out. Your readers will subconsciously thank you. If you have a plugin for your site that rates readability, look over that and it will give you suggestions specifically for your article.

Review for SEO

SEO goes hand in hand with readability. How often does your keyword appear? Does it show up right away, or is your reader lost for the first two paragraphs? In this day and age, it is important to remember that not only people, but computers are reading your copy.

Have it reviewed. Again.

If you think you’ve perfected your article, have it reviewed one last time before posting it. In the end you are not writing for yourself, you are writing for others, so let others give you feedback.

Having a great idea and a spellchecker will not guarantee you a readable article. Make use of the tools and people around you. Simplifying your writing and conforming your article to standards does not cheapen your art, it enhances your craft.

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