More thoughts on readability

I had a few more thoughts on readability to share. Making sure your text has a low Gunning Fog Index is not the only thing you can do to improve your readability. There are broader things that will help as well.

The first of these is good structure. The old saw about telling someone what you’re going to tell ‘em, telling ‘em, then telling ‘em what you told ‘em, is still true for good technical communication of any kind. Give your readers enough information to whet their interest and to give them a mental framework to understand what’s coming soon. Then give them the explanation that they’re there for, and close with a summary of what they learned.

The next idea is parallelism. Parallelism sets your readers’ expectations and fulfills them. If you’ve told ‘em what you’re going to tell ‘em at the start of the last four chapters, it’s a pretty safe bet they’ll be looking for the same thing at the start of the fifth chapter. And when they get there, they’ll be able to get the hang of what you’re doing that much faster. Parallel structure in your writing is comforting to the reader. There’s a general rule of “no surprises!” that works really well. (Yes, you can break the rules periodically, but you need to follow them most of the time.)

Hand in glove with parallel writing is an established and understandable format. Make the format support the writing. Don’t use too many fonts, make the hierarchy in the heading levels self-explanatory, and have plenty of white space. Just to let your readers know what to expect, have information up front in the introduction in a “How to Use This Book” section that lists all your formatting conventions. Show what bold, italic, underlining, different fonts, and so on mean. Give examples of notes, tips, cautions, and warnings.

Illustrations and graphics are very good. They add a measure of interest to the text and give the visual learners something to latch on to. The “Dummies” books are very good examples of using margin art to support the text. Even a set of standard graphics to highlight heading levels, notes, and definitions will give your readers a level of visual excitement that can turn a good book into a dazzling book.

And, as Richard Hamilton pointed out on yesterday’s post, just because you use a small word, it doesn’t mean that it’s the best or most understandable word. I was in a meeting Thursday where the leader used the word “onus.” It’s a wonderful word and it was perfect for the venue (another good, short word, come to think of it), but it’s a high concept word that may actually decrease readability. “Responsibility” would’ve had generated a higher grade level on a purely mechanical readability score, but it would’ve been a better word for most audiences to give them better comprehension.

Those are all the thoughts that I had this morning before caffeine had seeped into my brain. What do you think adds to readability?

3 Responses to “More thoughts on readability”

  1. But there is (or should be) a limit.

    Einstein’s Theory of Relativity was mentioned, so I found it fitting that the quote I immediately thought of is by him. Einstein’s original comment of “It can scarcely be denied that the supreme goal of all theory is to make the irreducible basic elements as simple and as few as possible without having to surrender the adequate representation of a single datum of experience.” was later reduced to “Make things as simple as possible, but not simpler”.

    The old dictum of ‘always write to your audience’ holds, as does the necessity of complex ideas can only be simplified so far. As an example, a friend of mine was on a textbook review board for a junior college in Biology. Their current biology texts were at a 9th grade reading level; the proposed texts were at a 6th grade level because some of the students were having trouble reading at the 9th grade level. She became quite unpopular when she pushed back on adopting the new texts with the reasoning there were concepts at the college level in Biology which couldn’t be simplified to a 6th grade level.

    So I agree to keep it simple, but only as simple as is justified for the subject, audience, and type of publication. I’ve seen people become too enamored with readibility rankings to the detriment of the ability of their document to achieve its stated goals.

    • Definitely, Stephen. Some things can’t be made substantially simpler as far as word choices. If you’re talking about, say, ventricular tachycardia, atrial fibrillation, and pulmonary embolisms, your basic Gunning-Fog index, figured just by syllables and the length of the sentences you’d probably wrap around these, would be horrible. But you cannot use simpler phrases without losing the specificity and (for the readers of such material) the value of these phrases as summary concepts.

      “As simple as possible but no simpler” is an excellent rule for dealing with your text.

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