Tuesday, October 2, 2012

Readability

For a lot of this post, I'll be writing mostly for myself, as reminders for future endeavors. However, I hope my thoughts may prove useful for others, as well.

I was talking with several people this weekend about websites, and one thing we all agreed on was the importance of readability. This is an era of short attention spans, and I don't expect that to change any time soon. Anyone who wants visitors to stick around a site or return to it has to make it easy on them.

I'm not talking about talking down to your potential readers. I'm not even talking about the words you use, yet. As a writer, I'm slightly pained to admit it, but as a longtime layout editor, I know that design is on a par with content.

 A relative of mine refuses to visit a restaurant chain because she hates their website so much, with all its flashy, animated clutter. A lot of people have less visceral reactions but still won't spend long on sites that make them uncomfortable. If you're not a professional designer, then just focus on this: A simple, high-contrast layout will make it easier for the visitor to focus on the content instead of being distracted by the packaging.

Now, about the writing: Don't do anything to slow the reader down. If you want to make people stop and think about your topic, great, but don't make them have to stop and figure out what you were trying to say.

First of all, use correct spelling, punctuation, and grammar. Even if you don't care about such things, more of your readers will care than you may expect -- even if they just make silent, subconscious judgments of your site as being less than professional. If you can't find a friend or an editor to review before you post, consider writing a draft of your text in Word or something else that will point out errors. It won't catch them all, though! If readers point out an error, thank them and fix it.

Next, know your audience, and use appropriate vocabulary. If you're trying to reach a mass market, use simple words and short sentences. If you're expecting readers who love language, then share your own favorite words, but don't show off just to seem smart. If you lean toward subordinate clauses and other complexities, read back through and see if you can break anything down.

Don't waste time getting to the point. 
  • If the point is to get people to visit your store or buy your merchandise, put a description of what makes you special on your homepage, along with vital stats including address, hours, and phone number.
  • If the point is to convey information, tell the main point and then go into details, not the other way around. The old journalistic list of who, what, where, when, why and how helps here.
  • If you're telling a joke or a story with a twist at the end, make sure your lead is compelling. See if you can ask some sort of question that will make people want to keep reading in order to find the answer. 
  • If you just want to piffle about your daily life, make sure you give some kind of warning about this early on, so that people don't finish your post, wonder why they wasted their time, and unfollow you.  A rambling post may be okay once in a while, if it helps readers feel they're getting to know you, but try not to make a habit of it.
Finally, reread what you wrote. If it's short enough, read it aloud (subvocally, at least) to slow yourself down and make sure you don't skim over things. If you have time, put it aside and do something else so that you can come back to it with fresh eyes for proofreading. Is there anything that you meant to say and simply left out? Is there any assumed knowledge -- stuff where you know what you meant, but a visitor won't get it? Seeing what you MEANT to write instead of what you DID write is always a danger, so be careful!

These are the main points I try to pay attention to when I'm evaluating my writing style. The content is an issue for another day. If anyone else has suggestions for making writing as readable as possible, I'd love to hear them!


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