“The most important lesson in the writing trade is that
any manuscript is improved if you cut away the fat.” -- Robert Heinlein

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Issue 41   July, 2016

Before and after: 9 steps to readable writing

Dear Sue,
In a showdown between fast cars and slow-moving turtles, the losers are easy to spot, flattened on increasingly busy roads. The study of this often deadly interaction of road networks aSnapping turtle crossing a roadnd nature is called road ecology.

Some background reading I’m doing for a project includes a guide billed as a “resource for students, citizens, government and non-government agencies.”

If you produce material that you hope will be read and understood, you can use readability tests to get an idea of how you’re doing. I ran some tests on the guide to see just how easy it is to read.

Here’s one paragraph -- with danger zones highlighted by the Hemingway app -- headlined “Direct Mortality: Wildlife/Vehicle Collisions (WVC’s)*:

Writing that needs work
A readability test shows this section has a grade level of about 16, making it understandable by 21- to 22-year-olds. There are 39 complex words (like mitigation), nearly 20% of the total 198 words. Average number of words per sentence is 28.29 (9-18 are best). Reading ease is 37.6 (you want 60 or better). The Hemingway app shows that only one sentence isn’t hard to read, and three are written in the passive voice.

I rewrote the lengthy paragraph and split it in two, aiming for simpler words and shorter sentences:

More understandable text
This section now meets a grade level of about 10, making it easily understood by 15- to 16-year-olds -- and busy, impatient readers. There are 12 complex words, about 12% of the total 98 words. Average number of words per sentence is 14, about half of the original text. Reading ease is 65.7. The second sentence is the only one considered very hard to read, and there is no passive writing.

If a readability test shows a piece of writing could be improved, follow these nine steps:
  1. What point are you trying to make? Start with that in mind.
  2. Shorten words, aiming for an average of five characters per word; "death" instead of "mortality," for example.
  3. Cut out unnecessary words, such as “specifically.”
  4. Break separate thoughts into separate sentences.
  5. Tighten and shorten sentences. Aim for an average of 14 words per sentence, which results in 90-99% understanding, according to the American Press Institute. A sentence of 28 words will be understood by only 50-59% of readers.
  6. Break paragraphs into fewer sentences, averaging just two or three.
  7. Make lists or bullet points if needed.
  8. Write to the reader ("you").
  9. Use active vs. passive writing ("cost millions of dollars" vs. "millions of dollars are spent").
*Note that if you had to use the awkward WVC (better to spell out “collisions”), the plural does not take an apostrophe.

Freelance writer Sue HornerHave you seen a “before"  piece of writing that needs an "after"? Please hit "reply" and share. And let me know if you'd like help making your own content more readable.
Sue's photo by Rob Jeanveau of IABC/Golden Horseshoe.
Snapping turtle from Dundas Turtle Watch.

Related links

Test your document's readability

Try the Hemingway app

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