If you’re like me you probably write posts or press releases, and then proofread them and wonder what in the world you were thinking when you wrote them. Truth told, the readability of our copy can always be improved.
Ann Wylie of Wylie Communications cites the book What Makes a Book Readable by William S. Gray and Bernice Leary to describe the four aspects of readability:
What I want to do in this post is to use this framework to offer some best practices to improve the readability of your copy.
Wylie describes content as “arguments, structure, and coherence.” For PR copy, this has a few different facets: what, where and why you are writing all have influence on how you’ll structure your copy.
1. Let the platform dictate (some) structure
While most people use the introduction – body – conclusion structure to organize their copy, platforms can dictate what you say where. A good example would be Twitter, where your character count is limited to 140 but your goal should be less than 110 (if you want to be retweeted). You may be able to include more information in an email pitch than if you were leaving a phone message for a journalist.
There are times when adjusting copy to a platform is not advisable. For example: bloviated press releases. If the same information were contained in an email pitch or a social pitch it might be pared down and tailored to the audience, but occasionally press releases end up more robust than necessary (you’ve probably never seen this, though).
2. Make thoughtful transitions between ideas
Oftentimes when we’re aiming for brevity, we sacrifice the cohesiveness of our ideas. English professor Daniel Kies describes nine different techniques that you can use to make your transitions more cohesive:
- Repetition – Repeat words from one sentence to another.
- Synonymy – Rather than repeating a specific word, use a synonym to your anchor word in the transition sentence.
- Antonymy – Transition using an opposite word (antonym) to the anchoring word of your first idea.
- Pro-forms – Use a pronoun or other pro-form to reference your anchoring word.
- Collocation – Utilize a word that is commonly paired with your anchor word in your transition sentence.
- Enumeration – Use markers (like the numbering system in this post) to transition between ideas
- Parallelism – Repeat a sentence structure.
- Transitions – Use a conjunctions (because, and, but, so, or) to connect sentences or ideas.
Style (in the context of readability) is your word choice and sentence choice. There is a lot of advice about this. I recently found Elmore Leonard’s 10 Rules of Writing. In it he expresses very strong feelings about style:
- Rule #3 – Never use a verb other than “said” to carry dialogue
- Rule #4 – Never use an adverb to modify the verb “said”
What Elmore is trying to convey is that readers understand when you are being superfluous. You can bet journalists understand this as well.
3. Write your copy for seventh-grade readers
The more sophisticated your writing is, the less accessible it is. One of the things that I love about my Kindle is the capability to look up words with its built in dictionary. But if I come across a five-dollar word in your press release, I’ll probably skip over it and it may turn me off to the entire document.
One way to test how accessible your writing is, is to use the Readability test tool. It is a website that analyzes your writing to determine how accessible it is. It also calculates readability using a host of popular readability algorithms:
- Flesch Kincaid Reading Ease – developed by the Navy to determine the readability of their manuals
- Flesch Kincaid Grade Level
- Gunning Fog Score – developed by a businessman to determine readability to an intended audience
- SMOG Index – SMOG acronym stands for “simple measure of gobbleygook” develop as improvement to Gunning Fog
- Coleman Liau Index – Calculates grade-level equivalency necessary to read documents
- Automated Readability Index – Another grade-level equivalency measurement
4. Use easy words
One of the best ways to improve the readability of your copy is to use smaller words according to Wylie. She says that “the more easy words you use, the easier your message becomes to read.”
One of the commonalities of the reading equivalency algorithms is to look at syllables. When trying to improve readability be on the lookout for five dollar words and try to eliminate them if you can.
5. Use smaller sentences
When looking at the reading equivalency algorithms, another commonality is sentence length. Look for opportunities to break up compound sentences and to eliminate superfluous or redundant ideas.
The Enago blog also writes that using a combination of short, medium and long sentences keeps a reader’s attention for longer periods. Matthew Stibbe of Articulate Marketing puts it more succinctly when he writes:
“Short sentences rule.”
6. Use fewer adjectives and adverbs
Channeling Elmore Leonard: consider whether the the adjectives or adverbs that you use are necessary. You’ll be surprised how often they are not.
7. Use less jargon
Even if your jargon-y words don’t contain a lot of syllables, you should be aware that your intended audience will likely misunderstand what you are trying to communicate by using them. Avoid jargon whenever possible.
8. Check for proper grammar and spelling
“Make sure your pitch is grammatically correct, or you’ll instantly lose credibility.”
Especially if you’re pitching journalists and writers, poor grammar or misspelled copy is going to be an easy discriminator for them. This is a nearly universal pet-peeve for journalists.
Design can include a few aspects, but I want to focus on typography. Whether we’re conscious of it or not, typography has a lot to do with how readable digital text is.
9. Check the size of your email fonts for mobile devices
The majority of email gets opened on a mobile device. So consider this thought experiment: you prepare the perfect email pitch. You do your research, you are succinct, and you are offering exclusive information to a journalist that writes specifically about your topic. You send the pitch, the email font is too small and it gets deleted along with your hopes and aspirations. I’m exaggerating, but hopefully I made the point that mobile readability is an important consideration.
Jamie Appleseed of the Baymard Institute suggests a maximum of 50 characters per line in mobile-optimized email. Matthew Stibbe suggests simply to “use bigger fonts.”
10. Don’t get fancy with your fonts
The Papyrus font makes me eyes (figuratively) bleed. I used to work with an HR manager that would write her emails entirely in Papyrus font. There are a lot of objectionable fonts out there, and there are a lot of very readable fonts as well. Arial, Helvetica, Times New Roman, Open Sans, and others are known for their readability. Don’t overthink fonts. Look to differentiate yourself with substance and not with style.
The same holds true for other aspects of digital communication: backgrounds, colors, and images make your communication conspicuous in a negative light.
11. Use structural elements in your writing.
If you pay attention to really strong business writers, they utilize a lot of structure elements in their writing. Bullet points, numbered lists, headings, italics, and bold lettering are all tools that you can use to make your writing more readable.
One of the best resources on this topic was written by Cyrus Shepard of Moz, who shows that structured content is read and shared on magnitudes of 100 more than traditionally structured copy. He posits that it may be because readers skim a lot of documents and the structure is useful for this purpose. Whatever the reason – structure works well.
There are very small things that you can do right now to improve the readability of your copy. These range from your transitions, to your word selection, to your mobile optimization and structure. By making your copy more readable, you are able to communicate more effectively with your publics.
“The best solution is to use his material in such a way that it arouses interest and invites reading.” –Allen Hurlburt, Layout: The Design of the Printed Page