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?