How to write readable content, so people who use your charity’s services can get what they need from it.
“Help people on their own terms. Use words they understand, and treat them with the same level of respect you’d give them in person.” – Nicole Fenton and Kate Kiefer Lee, authors of ‘Nicely Said: Writing for the Web With Style and Purpose’
You can learn to write readable content. Yes, you. Even if you don’t have ‘writer’ in your job title. And even if you're used to more formal types of writing that use the technical language of your charity’s field – for example, reports and funding bids.
As you’ll see, writing for readability involves:
- being aware of the factors that can make text hard to read
- using the words that the people you’re writing for use
- making the effort to communicate as clearly and simply as possible
What readability is
Readability is a measure of how easy a piece of text is to read. Things that affect readability include word choice, sentence length and sentence structure.
Why readability matters
The more readable your digital content is, the easier it is for the people you support to get the information they need.
The benefits of readability
Here are the main reasons why it’s worth making your content readable.
It makes life easier for people who use your services
Readable content is:
- quicker to read
- easier to understand
- easier to remember
If your content’s readable, it helps people who have difficulty reading. This may be more people than you think, because:
- 16.4% of adults in England (7.1 million people) are functionally illiterate. This means they cannot read well enough to do everyday tasks National Literacy Trust
- around 10% of the UK population is dyslexic – British Dyslexia association
- 1.5 million people in the UK have a learning disability – Mencap
- there are over 2 million people in the UK living with sight loss – Royal National Institute for the Blind
And there may be people who use your services who find reading difficult for other reasons. They may have English as a second or third language. Or they’re distressed, which makes it harder for them to process information.
Ways to improve the readability of your writing
Simple ways to improve the readability of your writing include:
1. Using plain English
Plain English is sometimes called ‘clear English’ or ‘plain language. It means communication that people can understand the first time they read or hear it. Using everyday language can make content plainer English. 'Help' is plainer English than ‘assistance’, and ‘allow’ or ‘let’ is plainer English than ‘empower’.
GOV.UK has a list of commonly-used words to avoid and plain English alternatives. And the Plain English Campaign has an A - Z of alternative words.
Sometimes people call using clear and easily understandable content ‘dumbing down’. But that ignores its positive impact. “If you make your content easy to read, you aren’t ‘dumbing down’, you are opening up your information to anyone who wants to read it.” Sarah Winters, Content Design London.
Research shows that specialists prefer plain English. In 2012, researchers at a law school in the US carried out a study into the use of language in legal documents. It found that the more educated the person, the more they preferred plain English. So making your content readable helps people with high literacy levels too.
2. Keeping your sentences short
Long and winding sentences (like this one) are harder to follow because they can act like memory tests for people who find reading hard and that’s why the Plain English Campaign recommends using sentences that are 15 - 20 words long because this makes them easier to scan.
3. Avoiding words and phrases that people who use your services are not likely to understand
Do not use terms that people aren’t likely to know, and if you do, explain them. Spell out abbreviations and acronyms unless they’re very well known (like BBC or FIFA). Do not use Latin phrases (use ‘for example’ instead of ‘e.g’.). And avoid idioms (‘a piece of cake’) and metaphorical language (‘a roller coaster of emotions’). Use the everyday words that they use.
4. Using direct language
Using direct language means that it’s easy to understand who’s doing what in a sentence. Take this example from Barnardo’s:
“We support children who have been abused and help them feel safe again.”
It’s clear exactly who’s doing the supporting and helping children to feel safe.
But in the indirect, more detached and longer version below, it’s not clear who’s supporting them:
“Children who have been abused are supported and they are helped to feel safe again.”
5. Breaking up your text into easily digestible pieces using headers and bullets
Headings and bulleted lists make it easier for people to read and process your content. They divide up your content, make it easier to scan and stop it from being a wall of dense text.
6. Using readability guidelines
Content Design London’s evidence-based readability guidelines are a handy reference point. They cover everything from abbreviations to emojis.
Google ‘readability checker’ and you’ll come up with lots of different free tools. You copy and paste your text into them, and click a button to get a readability rating.
Readability checkers use a range of ways to assess text. These include:
- average sentence length
- average syllables per word
- percentage of words with more than 3 syllables
The Hemingway App is one of the best-known readability checkers. It gives your content a US school year level, and highlights:
- which sentences are hard, or very hard, to read
- where you’ve used the passive voice (indirect language)
- if there are other, simpler alternatives to words you’ve used
- how many adverbs you’ve used
Here’s Hemingway’s assessment of content from Shakti Women’s Aid:
You don’t need to act on all the feedback from readability checkers. But they can be a useful starting point if you want to make your writing simpler.
Readability checkers won’t improve your content’s quality
Readability checkers are helpful, but they have drawbacks too. Even if the people you support can read your words, that does not always guarantee that they understand them.
Hemingway rates these phrases as grade 6 (good):
- ‘income-based Jobseeker’s Allowance’
- ‘contribution-based Jobseeker’s Allowance’
- ‘child element of Universal Credit’
So, in theory, their readability is high. But, when they were tested with people applying for benefits, they struggled to read and understand them.
This is one of the drawbacks of readability checkers. They do not measure content quality, this means whether or not a piece of content meets its goal.
The goal of the bullets that Hemingway rates as good is to describe different kinds of benefits. But they fail because the content quality is poor. It’s government language, and not written with the people who are going to read it in mind.
Here’s an example from an organisation that won a Golden Bull award in 2022. These awards are given by the Plain English Campaign for communication that’s hard to make sense of:
“A new binational humanities project aims to develop a reciprocal, consultative model for decolonisation of heritage collections through digital tools, in collaboration with a tribal college library and archives in the USA, and a museum and library in the UK.”
It’s (just about) possible to read these words, but what do they actually mean?
Readability checkers focus on blocks of text that are not in context. They do not measure content quality – this means whether or not a piece of content meets its goal. Content goals for your charity could be:
- making it clear how potential supporters can make donations
- letting people know the best ways to get in touch with you
- describing your organisation’s approach to diversity, equity and inclusion
The goal of the Golden Bull award winning content is to explain the aim of a new project. But it fails because the content quality is poor. It’s a 40-word sentence. It’s not written with the people who’ll read it in mind. And it uses corporate jargon instead of everyday language. All of this gets in the way of what it’s trying to say.
How to improve your content’s quality
Use content design principles to create your content. And test it to make sure it works for the people you created for. Content testing also helps you find the words the people you work with are using.
Ways to do this include:
- Cloze test - replace every 6th word with a blank to see if people still understand it
- Pens of power - ask people to highlight what’s clear and what they struggle with in different colours
- Asking people questions about your content – find out what people take from it
What to do if you’re not able to test your content
If testing your content is not an option, try reading what you’ve written aloud. This can be a good way of catching long, or clunky, sentences, and sections that are unclear. You can also get your laptop to read your writing aloud for you.
Asking a colleague to read over what you’ve written and give you feedback might be helpful too. (But remember, you’re not writing for them. And it'll be hard for them to ignore what they know, and read from the point of view of someone who uses your services.)
Tell your colleague who you’ve written the content for and what its purpose is. Then ask them to:
- read over it paying special attention to whether or not the content meets its goal
- see if there’s too much, or not enough, detail
- highlight any jargon and tricky words and phrases
- suggest easier alternatives
Another way of checking if the main points in your content are clear, is asking a colleague to read it and summarise it in their own words.