Writing for Readability: A Few Simple Tricks

Writing for Readability: A Few Simple Tricks

Readers have become scanners. Information that was once scarce now deluges our computers, our mobile phones, our lives.

Processing this information takes time, something most of us have little to spare. To adapt, we’ve perfected our scanning abilities to filter out unneeded information.

No matter what we are writing—blog posts, marketing promotions, emails, etc.—we must accept that the majority of our readers will quickly scan the content. Some will decide to read it, and others will move on.

As writers, it’s our turn to adapt. And it doesn’t require a lot of effort. We can tailor our writing to the scanning audience with a few simple tricks.

Set up some road signs

In elementary school, I discovered the monotony of reading textbooks—page after page of dense paragraphs with tiny type. Luckily, I had a clever friend who showed me how to look for the “road signs” in the content. What is a road sign?

  • Title
  • Header
  • Sub-header
  • List
  • Graph
  • Chart
  • Table
  • Image
  • First Sentence in each paragraph

My friend explained that I could save time by reading only the road signs, and still gain a reasonable understanding of the information.

Our readers are looking for road signs too. We can help them by making our text easy to follow–and read.

Play the numbers

Readers are visually attracted to numbers–especially odd numbers. That’s why most magazine covers feature phrases like “7 Ways to Save a Million Dollars” and “5 Days to Perfect Health.” Many bloggers and marketers are already applying this principle when crafting headlines. But we can also use numbers in other ways to make our content easier to read.

Here are a few techniques you can try:
  • Use numerals (1, 2, 3…) when you want the number to stand out.
  • Spell out the number (one, two, three…) when you want the number to be less conspicuous.
  • Create groups of 3, 5, or 7 bullets or numbered points when building lists.
  • Break up paragraphs longer than 3 sentences (4 if the sentences are really short).
  • Limit the number of paragraphs in each sub-section to 3 (4 if the paragraphs are really short).

Let the words flow

Readers like smooth sentences and paragraphs. Being consistent is the best way to keep your words flowing without hitting any jarring obstacles. When writing a paragraph, the subject of each sentence should be the same. This doesn’t mean you have to start each sentence with the same exact words. It just means that the focus of each sentence should be on the same subject. For example, if you are writing a paragraph about Google, you shouldn’t suddenly start discussing bananas in the same paragraph.

Similarly, when you write a list of bullets or numbered points, the structure should be consistent. If you start the first point with a verb, you should start every point with a verb. If you start with a noun, you should start every point with a noun. It’s also important to keep the length of each point about the same (no 10-word phrases combined with 50-word phrases).

Another key to smooth writing is using transitional words and phrases when changing subjects. Here are a few examples:

  • In addition
  • Specifically
  • Therefore
  • Finally
  • Although
  • However
  • Then

You can find more here. When combined with road signs and a strategic use of numbers, transitional words guide your readers through your content, making it inherently more readable.