A readable guide to writing more readable content

July 08, 2016

Writing informative articles for the web is not like writing for other mediums. People read differently online — they open lots of links at once and flick from tab to tab, scanning up and down each page to find the information they want as quickly as possible. The easier to read and absorb your writing is, the more people you will reach.

Sentences and paragraphs

Line Length

Limit your sentences to under 25 words. This limit is a compromise between easy reading and expressing complicated ideas. Research suggests readers understand 90% of a 14 word sentence, but only 10% of a 43 word sentence.

More people fear snakes than full stops, so they recoil when a long sentence comes hissing across the page.

Martin Cutts, Oxford Guide To Plain English

People tend to scan websites rather than read the whole page in order. They only fully read about 25% of the text, so it’s important to get your meaning across quickly.

Following a long sentence requires more concentration, which means the reader has to hold several ideas in their head at once. This makes it harder to actually take in the meaning of a sentence.

Shorter sentences also force you to be more concise as a writer. This helps you express clear ideas that everyone immediately understands.

Paragraph Length

This also applies to paragraph length. Most paragraphs should have no more than three or four 25-word sentences. Each sentence should support the same point, so the paragraph argues for a single idea. If you find a paragraph growing longer than this, consider breaking it out into two separate points. Breaking your content into smaller chunks also helps people scan the page for the relevant bits of information they need.

Don’t be scared of very short paragraphs!

Language use

Write in plain English

Your writing should be suitable for everyone. Use simple alternatives to complex or formal words. Try ‘help’ instead of ‘assist’ and ‘about’ instead of ‘approximately’. If you need to use technical terms then do, just make sure you explain them the first time they appear.

This even applies to highly educated readers. The more educated a person is the simpler they prefer their text.

Use direct language

Use concrete language to make your ideas easier to visualise.

Write literally. Figurative writing can be harder to understand and often doesn’t say what you mean.

Use the ‘active voice’

The subject of your sentence should be performing the action. If the subject is sitting passively, unrelated to the verb, then you might be using the passive voice. An easy way to tell is to try inserting “by zombies” after the verb. If the result makes sense then you should re-work the sentence to use the active voice.

The passive voice is okay to use in certain situations, like describing a general truth, or an action with an unknown subject, or for focusing attention on the object being acted upon. In most situations the active voice will be more appropriate.

Page structure

Use subheadings

Dividing your content into subheadings lets readers scan the page to find what they need. As people tend to only read 25% of a page it’s good to give them obvious clues to the content of each section.

Use a subheading summarising the following content every few paragraphs. This also makes the page more inviting, as the reader never sees a long mass of text that they’ll have to work through to find what they want.

Summarise

Make sure your reader knows at all times what your point is. Tell them what you’re going to say at the beginning, then say it, and finally recap what you just told them. You’re trying to get people to understand information — keeping them in suspense is not helpful here.

This structure can lead to boring writing (which will cause your reader to disengage), so make sure you fill the middle with interesting content.

Conclusion

You’re not writing a beautiful novel. If you want people to stay on your article, find the information they need and actually take it all in, then you should:

  1. Write less
  2. Write simply
  3. Break up your content