1Up Your Writing with Plain Language

Ashley Bischoff

1Up Your Writing with Plain Language

By Ashley Bischoff

Tweet along at #PlainWriting

(You can move between slides with the arrow keys.)

What makes some writing more complicated than others?

How do I know if my writing is complicated?

It comes down to sentence length and syllables.

For example, here’s a terrible sentence from
part of the W3C’s accessibility guidelines:

Readability formulas are available for at least some languages when running the spell checkers in popular software if you specify in the options of this engine that you want to have the statistics when it has finished checking your documents.

The more complex the material, the shorter the sentences should be.

Experts recommend keeping sentences to between 20 and 25 words.

You also want variety.

You should have a few 35-word sentences and some 3-word sentences.

Just aim for an average of around 20-some words.

That terrible sentence from that W3C write-up is easier to read once it’s split into smaller sentences:

Readability formulas are often available when running the spellchecker in your word processor.

You can specify options to show those statistics when it’s finished checking your document.

Sentence length is half the battle.

Cutting syllables is the other half.

You can think of words as Tetris pieces.

Tetris Basic Game

Syllables are the building blocks of words.

You can think of one-syllable words (such as “so”) like 2-block Tetris pieces.

2-block Tetris piece

And you can think of two-syllable words (such as “update”) like 3-block Tetris pieces.

3-block Tetris pieces

Things start to get a bit tricky with three-syllable words, which amount to 5-block Tetris pieces.

5-block Tetris pieces

And four-syllable words, which are like 7-block Tetris pieces, don’t make things any easier.

7-block Tetris pieces

And when it comes to five-syllable words, well, they’re about as much fun as toothpaste with orange juice.

8-block tetris pieces

Sometimes long words might be unavoidable.

And if you were to be saddled with one or two of these in a Tetris game, you might be able to get by.

7-block Tetris pieces

But the game just wouldn’t be fun anymore if you were to be handed huge pieces like these over and over and over.

7-block Tetris pieces

Some common corporatespeak words & plain substitutions.

PlainLanguage.gov also has a super handy list of simple words: bit.ly/plainwords

“prior to” → “before”

That takes you from 3 syllables… to 2. 5-block Tetris pieces 3-block Tetris pieces

“commence” → “start”

That takes you from 2 syllables… to 1. 3-block Tetris pieces 2-block Tetris piece

“sufficient” → “enough”

That takes you from 3 syllables… to 2. 5-block Tetris pieces 3-block Tetris pieces

“in order to” → “to”

That takes you from 4 syllables… to 1. 7-block Tetris pieces 2-block Tetris piece

“accordingly” or “consequently” → “so”

That takes you from 4 syllables… to 1. 7-block Tetris pieces 2-block Tetris piece

“the following” → “this”

That takes you from 4 syllables… to 1. 7-block Tetris pieces 2-block Tetris piece

“However” → “But”

That takes you from 3 syllables… to 1. 5-block Tetris pieces 2-block Tetris piece

But when it comes to syllables,

There’s one trick that makes more of a difference than any of these: contractions.

“do not” → “don’t”

That takes you from 2 syllables… to 1. 3-block Tetris pieces 2-block Tetris piece

“cannot” → “can’t”

That takes you from 2 syllables… to 1. 3-block Tetris pieces 2-block Tetris piece

Tom Freeman

Tom Freeman analyzed the Corpus of Contemporary American English for patterns around how contractions are used today.

COCA is a database of 450 million words from 1990 to 2012 covering sources including newspapers, magazines, and TV transcripts.

Here’s what Tom discovered across his analysis of newspapers and magazines in particular:

contraction use in newspapers & magazines
don’t 7.7 times more often than “do not”
can’t 2.9 times more often than “cannot”
doesn’t 2.8 times more often than “does not”
didn’t 2.7 times more often than “did not”
won’t 2.6 times more often than “will not”

The tide has turned.

And what was once avoided in some contexts is now commonplace.

People who study linguistics, such as Wayne Danielson and Dominic Larosa, found out decades ago that contractions improve readability.

Danielson, W. A., & Larosa, D. L. (1989). A New Readability Formula Based on the Stylistic Age of Novels. Journal of Reading, 33(3), pp. 194, 196.

And style guides have been on board the contraction train for years.

Most types of writing benefit from the use of contractions. If used thoughtfully, contractions in prose sound natural and relaxed and make reading more enjoyable.

The Chicago Manual of Style, section 5.103

Think back to any sci-fi robot movie and the way that the robot talked.

photo: Attack, Robot (cc) Jeremy Keith

Robot

Invariably, movie robots end up saying stuff like—

I will be glad to see them if they do not get mad.

They do that because screenwriters know that the easiest way to make anyone sound like a robot is to take away all their contractions.

And while that may sound like a cheap trick, it works every time.

So the next time you’re writing something up at work, ask yourself this:

Do I want to sound like
an automaton?

Or do I want to sound like a person?

Here’s how you can check your readability.

Readability Analyzer: bit.ly/readinganalyzer

Once you’re at the Readability Analyzer, paste your content into the text box, and the site will calculate your text’s readability numbers.

To keep your text readable,

Aim for a Flesch-Kincaid reading-grade level that’s less than 9.

And that’s because most people can only comfortably read writing that’s 4 to 5 years below their maximum education level.

Doak, L.G. & Doak, C.C. (1980). Patient comprehension profiles: Recent findings and strategies. Patient Counseling and Health Education, 2(3), pp. 101–106.

Looks like those W3C bits don’t fare too well.

WCAG's success criteria for readability scores a reading-grade level of 12 in parts

How does this play out in real life?

Have you ever wonder how well emergency weather alerts would go over if they were written at a college reading level?

Well, that’s actually what happened.

We are becoming optimistic that the Carolinas and the mid-Atlantic states will avoid the direct effects from [Hurricane] Joaquin. However, we cannot yet completely rule out direct impacts along the east coast, and residents there should continue to follow the progress of Joaquin over the next couple of days.

National Weather Service Alert from October 1, 2015

That paragraph has a Flesch-Kincaid reading-grade level of 13.4.

So can we do
any better?

Chances are getting better that Joaquin won’t affect the Carolinas or the states from New York through Virginia.

But we can’t yet rule out that the east coast could still be affected.

So those who live on the east coast should keep following our updates about Joaquin over the next few days.

And how does that version stack up?

The revised version has a Flesch-Kincaid reading-grade level of 7.6.

Bonus tip—

Don’t ever worry about a reading-grade level being “too low.”

“Do people with disabilities browse the web?”

Because no one has ever complained that something was too easy to read.

Recap—

Thanks!

@FriendlyAshley

words: @FriendlyAshley / a11y: @HandCoding