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How Do You Achieve Readability on the Web?

By Mary Vitcenda, Senior Editor

In the last edition of Word Matters, I discussed readability on the web and why it matters. To recap, readability on Extension’s website is about making online content clear and easy to understand in order to engage our audiences across Minnesota.

Practice Good Writing

So, how do you achieve readability on the web? It starts with using good writing practices to create your content. Those practices include revising your draft, maybe more than once. They also include asking some impartial reviewers to ensure your text is well organized, free of information gaps, and understandable to readers unfamiliar with your topic. Breaking things down further, you can improve readability by doing four key things in your writing:
  • Break your text into short paragraphs, usually 2 to 3 sentences, and rarely more than 5. 
  • Keep your sentences short, preferably no more than 25 words. As a point of reference, the first sentence of this column has 17 words. The second sentence has 24 words.
  • Write in active voice, not passive. For example, write “Cindy hit a home run,” not “A home run was hit by Cindy.” Sentences in the active voice are almost always shorter (as well as more energetic and compelling).
  • Choose short words over long ones with many syllables.
Yes, I know — that last rule is a tough one, especially when reporting research findings or describing program goals. I’ve found eliminating multi-syllable words a significant challenge to improving the readability of my own writing. Even words we must use, like “University,” pile up the syllables.

But problems posed by these “necessary” multi-syllable words at Extension make it even more important to use short words — and eliminate unnecessary phrases — in other instances. For example, write “use” instead of “utilize.” Or “now” instead of “at the present time.” Or “start” instead of “commence.” You get the idea. Remember, simple does not mean dumb, and complex does not mean smart.

As for technical terms, avoid them whenever possible and think of a simpler way to say something. But sometimes it’s important for your audience to know a term, such as “overindulgence,” and using it saves a lot of words overall. In this case, always define the technical term in first reference for readers who don’t know your field like you do. Then you can repeat the technical term as needed through the rest of your text.

Check Readability with Microsoft Word

Finally, use the tools at your fingertips to improve the readability of your web content, such as Microsoft Word’s “Readability Statistics” tool. This tool provides valuable information about your text, including the number of passive sentences, its reading ease per the Flesch scale, and its grade level per the Flesch-Kincaid scale.

Here's how to do it:
  • Enable the readability statistics tool in MS Word’s “Spelling & Grammar” check. 
  • Run the spelling and grammar check on your Word document. 
  • After going through that check, you'll get a dialogue box indicating that your spelling and grammar check is complete. Click "OK" and another dialogue box with readability statistics will appear.

screenshot of Microsoft Word readability statistics
Meta enough for you?

In general, FD aims for a 6th grade level for participant materials and 8th grade for text aimed at partners. If those sound low to you, remember what I said in the previous column about readers skimming and scanning web pages. They don’t like long sentences or “big” words (without an explanation anyway). And, as Youth Development Web Manager Ann Nordby says, “Even college-educated readers don’t want to read at a college level all the time.”

Just Try

All this said, even after following these tips, you might not hit the 6th and 8th grade marks every time. The point is to just try. Your audiences will thank you for it.

Editor's note: This column was updated on April 19, 2017 to add more detail about using Microsoft Word's Readability Statistics tool.

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