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by Stephen Logan on 16th February 2010
Websites attract a diverse audience. Your content has to be able to speak to each visitor in a manner that they can easily understand. As you might expect, this isn’t easy, but it is essential.
First of all you need to make sure that you don’t alienate anyone. This means that you should avoid using too much jargon and steer clear of complex words. If you try to be too clever, your message could get lost in translation. Keep it simple and appeal to a wider audience.
Reduce the length of your sentences too. Punchy text is easier to read and is less likely to deter visitors. Don’t go overboard, just work out which words are needed and which aren’t. Be wordy when you need to, avoid it at all other times.
Getting Your Message Across
Whatever you’re producing content for, the message is the most important thing. The clearer you can present it, the more likely it will succeed. On the Internet, you have only a short time to get your message across. Attention spans are short and so too is time. It’s a competitive market and you can’t give visitors an excuse to leave. If they feel patronised or confused, you can’t expect them to read on.
Simplifying doesn’t mean dumbing down. You don’t have to remove any word with more than five letters. You don’t have to avoid difficult subjects. You just have to find a way to convey your message in a style that is easy to access.
This post is a good example. It has been stripped down to remove any clutter. It isn’t my usual style, I am the first to admit that, but it shows the benefit of using Plain English without unnecessary baggage. It isn’t perfect. It could easily be made more readable. However, it does illustrate a point.
Format Content for Readability
Format is also vital. Text needs to have a rhythm. It has to flow. It also has to be appealing to the eye. This means you have to structure your content properly. Include sub-headings to break up your text. This will guide the reader’s eye and provide clear breaks. Sub-headings should also offer a brief summary of the overall content; informing anybody who doesn’t read the whole page what it is about.
In terms of style, there’s plenty you can do to improve readability. Group text in threes where possible. If you’re giving examples, write three. If you’re using sub-headings, insert them after three paragraphs. You can even three sentence paragraphs. We read in threes so why not write in them too?
Try not to make basic errors. Just a small spelling mistake or grammatical issue can ruin content. It distracts the reader and halts the flow of the copy. Your content needs to be readable, but it also has to be accurate. Don’t get too caught up in simplifying it and then lose the natural rhythm through carelessness.
Writing For Your Audience
Content is there for the visitor’s benefit. Therefore, you need to ensure that they can understand it. You won’t satisfy everybody, but with readable content you can at least please the majority. Whether you’re writing for a blog, article or a site, you need to always remember your audience.
Whilst I personally favour a more complex writing style, I know that isn’t for everybody. But you do always have to consider context. If you’re writing expressly for the scientific community, you can expect a bit of technical language. If you’re writing for children, even this simplified style might be too complicated. If you’re writing for a general audience, you have to use a universal tone.
By ignoring readability, you could be inadvertently undermining your website. The content is there, the search engines have indexed it, but people just aren’t responding. The difference between success and failure online is ordinarily just a click. Don’t give anybody the excuse; keep it simple, keep it clean, keep it readable.
NOTE: For the statisticians amongst you, this blog post has a Flesch Reading Ease score of 63.91 and a Gunning Fog Index of 8.05. Phrases like ‘inadvertently undermining’ and even ‘readability’ will have all contributed to the complication of the content. Shorter sentences, shorter words and fewer syllables will help increase the Flesch score whilst lowering the Gunning Fog. All tests were conducted at Online Utility, one of many sites offering a readability tool.