(Editor’s note: This is a repeat of an online conference Ms. Enslen led for APMP in August.)
Improving readability isn’t rocket science but does require vigilance, says Samantha Enslen, President of Dragonfly Editorial.
“If you get one thing out of this conference, it’s take really long sentences and unpack them into separate parts,” said Enslen, whose editorial agency helps organizations with content and clarity. “Really, if you want to leave right now, you can go.”
Readability typically is measured with ratings created by Rudolph Fleish and Peter Kincaid. The ratings were established in the 1970s when the U.S. Navy wanted to determine the accessibility of their technical manuals to teenage seamen. Two key rating systems exist. Fleisch alone create one that rates text from from 0 (college graduate) to 100 (5th grade). Together, Fleish and Kincade created a second that assigns a grade-level rating to text. Both ratings equations are based on the length of words and the length of sentences.
Enslen noted the ratings for various books and documents:
- Affordable Care Act. – 13th
- Goodnight Moon – 2nd
- Harry Potter series – 5th – 7th
- Pride and Prejudice – 5th
Even Malcolm Gladwell’s books, such as Blink, which address complex topics, are written on a 9th grade reading level, she said.
Enslen cited shorter sentences as one of four steps to improve readability. The ideal sentence length is 14 words, she added.
Of course, proposals often have much longer sentences, she noted. “We have so many ideas, we want to get them in there. And that’s fine. Let’s get them in there, but just not all in one sentence,” she said. “Let’s start by doing one sentence, one idea.”
Enslen illustrated this concept with a sentence that had a 27th grade rating. After splitting the sentence in two, removing extraneous words, and converting several phrases into a bulleted list, the revised text scored an 11th grade reading level.
Writers already have at least one piece of sophisticated readability analysis software on their computers. “It’s called Microsoft Word,” Enslen said. “All you have to do is turn it on.”
The Word readability tool is activated by selecting File, then Options, then Proofing, and checking the box labeled “Show Readability Statistics.” The setting will remain active for all current and future documents. Simply run spellcheck, and the analysis box at the end of the review will include readability information.
The three other steps Enslen offered to improve readability are:
Simplify sentencesPreview (opens in a new window)
Keeping the subject and verb together will significantly simplify sentences, she said.
“In the most powerful writing, the verb is really close to the subject,” she said. “‘Rome burned.’ ‘Jesus wept.’ ‘The APMP conference rocked.’ You can visualize the action because it’s right in front of you.”
Alternately, “Nounification” can make sentences more complex, she said. Nounification is taking a “perfectly useable” verb and turning it into a noun. Examples include:
- Decide > decision.
- Manage > management.
- Conclude > conclusion.
- Discuss > discussion.
- Examine > examination.
- Consider > consideration.
Such words require additional words to get the point across, she noted. “All these single direct verbs become watered down noun phrases.”
Eliminating the passive voice will simplify sentences, Enslen said. “In an active phrase, the subject does the action. In passive, the subject is acted upon by something else.”
She offered her favorite rule for determining whether a sentence is passive: Does it still make sense by adding the words, “by zombies.”
- The national network will be deployed by zombies.
- Implementation of the transition plan will be carried out swiftly and efficiently by zombies.
Enslen isn’t completely opposed to using passive verbs. They are useful, she said, when the doer is irrelevant. “‘Free drinks are being served downstairs.’ Do you really care who’s doing the serving?”
From the back of the room, someone said, “If it’s by zombies.”
Everyone has their list of words to avoid, and Enslen offered hers:
- Accordingly > so.
- Facility > help.
- Immediately > how.
- Utilize > use.
- Subsequently > then.
- Expeditiously > fast.
- Remuneration > pay.
- Liaise > meet.
- Enumerate > list.
- Corporation > firm
- Transformation > change.
“The words on the right are more powerful words,” she said. “You’re not slowing down your text.”
That goes for phrases as well as words, she added.
- Until such time as > until.
- Have a need for > need.
- Due to the fact that > because.
- In the event that > if.
- Has the capability to > can.
“We’ve just gotten so used to writing those and hearing them, we don’t’ even notice them, she said. “Say what you mean. Cut out that extra stuff.”
Some “throat clearing” phrases are totally irrelevant, needing to be removed rather than replaced.
- It is important to remember that …
- A key aspect of this effort …
- Such as …
- It is our intention to …
“Just get to your sentence and state what you mean,” she said.
Enhance visual presentation
Writers can improve the visual attractiveness of text with a variety of tools, Enslen said, including:
- Bulleted lists.
- Shorter paragraphs.
- Relevant imagery and graphics.
- White space.
“I don’t see this giant wall of text,” she said. “You’re making the content more clear, and your grade scale readability goes down.”
As to when to apply these rules, Enslen advocates editing after writing, not during. “Get the information down, and focus on editing later.”