Why read this? : Good writing is easy to read. We share 10 tips to help you improve your writing’s readability. Easy steps you can do right away with examples to inspire you. Read this for ways to make your writing clearer and improve its readability.
Readability is a measure of how easy a piece of writing is to read.
(Not to be confused with legibility – a graphic design term usually referring to the size of typography. See our packaging for e-Commerce article for examples of this).
That easiness to read is based on words, the basic building blocks of all writing.
The number of letters and syllables in the words.
How the words fit together to form sentences.
How long those sentences are, and how they fit with the sentences around them.
And how the order of those sentences conveys understandable thoughts and ideas. This organisation and structure of writing makes it readable.
Historically, readability was a broad, subjective term. An editor might read your first draft and say you need to improve the readability.
What they meant by that was to make the reader’s reading experience better. Delete unneeded words. Clear out clunky sentences. Readable writing flows. It draws the reader in. You feel more absorbed in the words and story when the writing’s highly readable.
Great. But it’s quite broad advice. How do you actually make these things happen? How do you specifically improve readability?
Nowadays, readability usually has a more specific meaning and use.
It applies to the use of formulas to analyse a text. The formulas calculate a readability score by looking at the syllables, words and sentences in a text.
Edit your syllables, words and sentences to make them more readable, and you improve the text’s readability score.
The general principle of these readability formulas is less is more.
Shorter words and shorter sentences are easier to read. Using more of them improves your readability.
The most common one (and the one we use) is the Flesch-Kincaid test. It analyses the total words, sentences and syllables in your text to give you a readability score between 0 and 100.
Anything below 50 is considered difficult to read. These would usually be academic texts or in specialised professions like medicine and law. Conversely, anything above 80 is considered easy to read. Younger children could read and understand it.
For most professional writing (such as this article), you want the readability to be above 60. This is considered plain English and should be understandable to 13 to 15 year olds. Of course, getting that score higher, makes your writing even more readable.
(The readability score for this article is 71.7, by the way).
Online readability tools
Many of these readability tests are available online. They’re a mix of websites, plug-in tools to websites and apps.
You put your writing into them to measure and then improve its readability.
These tools analyse your text and advise you how to make it more readable.
Search Engine Journal has a list of 10 different tools you can use, but there’s 2 we use most often – Web FX, and Yoast SEO.
Web FX’s free tool is great for a general analysis of a piece of writing’s readability.
You put in a URL, cut and paste text directly in, or refer to the tool from your website using HTML code. It gives you results across several readability tests, including Flesch-Kincaid.
It’s useful for analysing competitor sites. It tells you how clear their writing is. It shows the quality of the creative thinking behind the brand. Strong brands have readable writing. Weak brands don’t.
For WordPress website publishing (like this blog, for example), we use Yoast. This has an in-built readability checker.
When you draft or publish your page in WordPress, it runs a series of readability checks, including your Flesch-Kincaid readability score.
It has a traffic light style alert system. Anything that needs to be looked at gets an amber or red light. It tells you what’s wrong and gives you tips on how to fix it. Fix the problem (or get it right first time), and you get a green light. Clearly, that’s what you want.
Using readability tools to improve your writing
This readability score is a great motivator when you write a lot of content (a weekly blog, for example).
It’s like a badge of honour to have a row of green readability lights against each article.
When we first started writing, it was usually 50 : 50 whether our first draft would be green for readability.
These days, we’re more conscious of readability as we write. We hit green about 90% of the time on the first draft. And if we don’t, we almost always hit it when we do the edit.
A 60+ score on the Flesch-Kincaid scale usually means a green light (unless something else is wrong). It’s always good when it turns green.
However, you shouldn’t rest on your laurels.
The higher you score over 60 the better. Though if your article scores a 60.1, you’ve probably still got some work to do.
Our average readability score is around 67. We’ve some articles like the one on D2C challenges where readability is over 80. (we’ll come on to why that one scores so highly later).
What these readability scores tell you is whether there are technical writing issues with your text. A good score tells you the structure and organisation of the syllables, words and sentences are sound.
Of course, it doesn’t tell you whether the writing has clear meaning. Or tells an engaging story. You still need real readers (and an editor) to help you with that. But it’s still a useful tool to make sure there’s no obvious flaws in your text.
10 tips on how to improve the readability of your writing
With these tools in mind, we’ve pulled together the 10 tips we use the most to improve our readability scores. These continue themes we’ve shared in previous articles, like good writing habits and lessons we’ve learned writing.
Tip 1 - Set yourself a readability goal
Writing is hard work. It’s mentally taxing. It takes longer than you think. Feeling motivated to write can be a challenge.
One of the best ways we’ve found to stay motivated is to set yourself readability goals.
Those could be short-term reward / risk type goals.
For example, I’ll treat myself to a coffee when I’ve written the introduction to this article. Or, if I don’t finish this article today, I won’t have that second bar of chocolate.
But they might also be long-term, performance measurement goals. You could motivate yourself by saying all your writing has to get a Flesch-Kincaid readability score of more than 60 (which is our readability goal by the way).
It’s not an easy goal. Over 90% of our pages are at 60+ readability, but some like our privacy and terms and conditions pages may never get there. Legally crafted text is usually prescribed, and is (unfortunately) not always written to be easily readable.
We’re gradually working through the remainder to improve their readability. It’s a good way to hone our writing skills. Every time we manage to turn one of those scores into a 60+ readability feels like a writing achievement. Like we’ve done something good for our readers. Made something complex easier for them to understand.
That’s very motivating.
Tip 2 - Use short words
It seems obvious to say short words are easier to read than long words. And yet, you often find longer words come out more when you write.
Writers often feel the need to use longer words (more letters and syllables) because they think it makes them sound smarter.
They feel the need to show off their word knowledge.
But readers don’t care about that. Long words are less readable.
For example, difficult (9 letters, 3 syllables) is less readable than hard (4 letters, 1 syllable). Accelerate (10 letters, 4 syllables) your sales is less readable than grow (4 letters, 1 syllable) your sales.
You may think longer words make you sound intelligent (11 letters, 4 syllables). Sorry, should have said smart (5 letters, 1 syllable). But in fact, a 2006 study showed it’s quite the opposite.
It showed longer words make you sound dumber. The research asked readers to score how smart they thought an author was based on their writing. Where the text was full of long, hard to understand words, readers typically rated the writer as less smart. As we said. Longer words make you sound dumber.
Unless you want to sound dumb, be careful of using long words. It’s not that you should never use them. But if you have the choice, try to use shorter synonyms where you can. Short words improve your readability. And stop the reader thinking you’re dumb.
That’s a good thing, right?
Practice using common, short words
There’s even a fun online tool at splasho’s website you can use to practice using short (and common) words.
It has a database of the ten hundred most common words. (thousand isn’t one of them, which is why it’s ten hundred).
You challenge yourself to explain something using only these common words. It’s harder than it sounds. But it’s a good way to work on improving your readability. Common words are very readable.
For example, here’s our attempt to explain marketing :-
When you try to get someone to buy your thing rather than something else.
You see? Short. Clear. Readable.
Tip 3 - Use short sentences
Short rather than long also works for sentences. Short sentences are more readable than long sentences. Seems obvious, right?
Writing the odd long sentence isn’t too bad. But they should be the exception, rather than the rule. Use them sparingly and deliberately. Your default should be short sentences.
In his book Writing Tools, writing expert Roy Peter Clark talks about a study which shows how average sentence length has shortened over time.
In Elizabethan times, it was 45 words. It dropped to 29 words by Victorian times. And in modern writing, you usually aim for less than 20 words in a sentence. (see our read like a polymath article for more on this).
So only use a long sentence if it makes sense to do so. Short sentences improve your readability. Too many long sentences kills your readability.
A sentence is a distinct block of meaning. It holds ideas and thoughts. The longer the sentence, the more ideas and thoughts you have to hold in your head. That’s why longer sentences are less readable. They’re harder work for the reader’s brain.
Full stops and commas
When you write sentences, full stops are your friend. Full stops let you take a mental mini-break between each sentence, between each block of meaning.
Commas are less of a friend. Commas often mean longer sentences, with more ideas and thoughts to hold in your head.
You don’t have to avoid them completely. But you should use them with care. Every sentence with a comma is harder work for the reader. Full stops are better. They improve your readability by making sentences shorter. Easier to understand. More readable.
It’s easy to slip into writing long sentences with commas on your first draft. It’s how the ideas flow out of your brain and on to the page. But check those commas when you edit. Break long comma-fuelled sentences into shorter chunks. Shorter sentences improve your readability.
And remember, short sentences are good for the reader. It’s less mentally taxing to read short sentences. They’ll read more of your writing and keep going for longer.
Again, that’s what you want, right?
Tip 4 - Active not passive
We’ve talked about the active voice elsewhere on this site (see our be a better writer guide, for example).
It’s when the basic order of your sentence is subject + verb. The subject does something (the verb). If there’s an object, it comes after the subject and verb. The subject does something to the object.
This should be your default style. Writing in the active voice keeps sentences shorter. And as we’ve just shown, shorter sentences improve readability.
With the passive voice, the object comes before the subject and verb. The object has something done to them. You use it if you need to emphasise the object. But it almost always makes sentences longer. And more complex.
Look at these examples, where the basic idea is the same in both sentences :-
Active : The dog barked at the robber.
Passive : The robber was barked at by the dog.
Active : The man opens the door.
Passive : The door is opened by the man.
Active : She yelled at him.
Passive : He was yelled at by her.
Clearly, passive sentences are longer. They use more words to say the same thing. And don’t they sound a bit clunky? There’s something awkward in the way they read. The active voice is clearer. More readable.
Try to use the passive voice only where you actively (!) decide you need it. Where you need to emphasise the object. Yoast SEO’s readability tool flags a warning if you use it in more than 10% of your sentences. Look for sentences where you use it, and see if they work better in the active voice.
Tip 5 - Use dialogue
When you read something, the words form in your head in a similar way to how you talk.
So if you can write the way you talk, those words are easier to process. They’re more readable.
That’s why it’s a good idea to read your writing out loud to see if they sound right. (see our editing blogs article for more on this).
Take that thinking a step further and you can see how dialogue can help improve your readability.
Not every topic will lend itself to dialogue. But with a bit of imagination, you can often drop it in. Use it to describe scenarios, or to bring case studies to life.
For example, we did this in our D2C challenges article. It’s a complex topic. The sales, IT and supply chain challenges which happen when you set up a new store. It would have been easy to write it using long, technical words.
But instead, we wrote much of it using dialogue. Conversations we had with the people in those functions. Dialogue naturally uses shorter words and sentences.
That meant we could cover the topic and improve our readability. That article has an 80+ readability score. All because we used dialogue to improve the readability.
Tip 6 - Kill weasel words
Next tip is to hunt out what writers call weasel words. These are words you use when you’re not confident about something. You hedge.
You say something might be true. It could be this. Or possibly, it’s that. Might, could be, possibly. None of those words inspire confidence. That’s you trying to weasel out of making a bold, confident statement.
Avoid this if you can. Try not to hedge your bets. Sometimes, you may need to, but it’s more readable when you take a more assertive tone.
If you’re not confident saying something, why say it? Say things as definitively as you can.
It’s hard though, right? You worry someone’s going to pull you up on it. But, really, how often does that actually happen? There’s a big upside to making strong, positive statements when you write. The chances of some pedantic critic calling you out is usually pretty slim.
The vast majority of readers want to believe in what you write. If they don’t believe, they’ll stop reading anyway. But weasel words like might, can, possibly make your writing less believable. Less readable. Avoid them where you can.
We’d love to say we never use them. But you may have already spotted some in this text. They come up a lot in our first drafts (when we’re still clarifying what we want to say). We do filter most of them out as we edit. But some still make it through.
Taking them out improves your readability. You shorten your sentences and sound more confident. Both of those are good for your readers.
Tip 7 - Omit unnecessary words
It’s not just weasel words. Cutting out all unnecessary words also improves your readability.
We take this advice from the classic The Elements of Style by Strunk and White. (see also our good writing habits article).
Their advice to …
“omit unnecessary words, with eagerness and relish. Vigorous writing is concise.”
… helps you do many of the things we’ve already covered. Like writing shorter sentences. Writing in the active, not passive voice. Killing weasel words.
All of these involve unnecessary words.
Some specific examples to watch out for include :-
“That” often creeps into sentences where it’s not needed. We recommend that you look out for it. Try that last sentence without that in it. Reads the same, right? It’s unnecessary as the word “that” often is. Take it out where you can.
These are verbs which come with a preposition attached. When used properly, they change the meaning of the verb – care for, add to, count on for example.
But often prepositions attach themselves to verbs without changing the meaning. In these cases, the preposition is unnecessary. You can cut it without changing the meaning.
For example, start an article, don’t start off an article. Add a sentence, don’t add in a sentence. Cut words, don’t cut out words. Prepositions are often unnecessary as you can see.
Check for these as you read back your draft in the edit. They can be easy to overlook as they’re usually small. But it’s a simple way to make your writing more readable.
Adverbs describe how a verb is carried out. But often they’re unnecessary. Especially when the verb itself conveys how it’s carried out.
So, for example, he shouted loudly. The loudness is implied from the verb shouting. People don’t shout quietly. It’s unnecessary to say it was loud.
Some verbs may be generic and need the adverb to qualify them. But it’s part of the skill of being a writer to find verbs that work without needing an adverb.
So for example, if sales grew quickly, you could change that to sales boomed. Same meaning. No adverb. Improved readability.
Stephen King in his book On Writing rallies hard against the over-use of adverbs. His advice is to have about 1 per 100,000 words. He also talks about improving readability and using the editing process to reduce word counts. Fewer words, fewer sentences makes for easier reads. His tip to set yourself a target or reducing the word count by at least 10% on your second draft versus your first draft.
This goal forces you to look for unnecessary words and take them out. It makes your writing sharper and improves the readability.
Tip 8 - Short vs long keywords
For online writing, you usually do keyword research to write about topics people search on.
And to boost your search results, you scatter this keyword through the text.
It needs to be there often enough for search engines to pick up that’s what it’s about.
But you don’t want to overdo it, as search engines don’t like keyword stuffing.
The usual guide is to use the keyword somewhere between 0.5% and 1% of the time in what you write. So, a keyword density of between 5 and 10 times in a 1,000 word article. (Our average in our writing is 0.65%).
There’s a readability challenge if you use a long keyword though. You need to use the keyword to help with your SEO. But if its long and you use it repeatedly, your readability goes down.
For example, our article which uses e-Commerce capability as the keyword phrase. But that word capability isn’t very readable. Ca-pa-bil-it-y. (10 letters, 5 syllables). Our first draft of that article didn’t get a happy green light from the Yoast readability tool.
Obviously, the easiest way to avoid this is to pick short, readable keywords. However, that’s not always possible. Some technical terms may not have shorter synonyms. Or the longer keyword may be what people search on.
If you do have to include a long keyword, the writing challenge is on to make the rest of the writing around it very readable. You use all those tips we’ve covered so far, and more. Use the keyword often enough for search engines to pick it up, but no more than that. Everything else you keep short, clear and omitting unnecessary words.
Tip 9 - Vary the rhythm of text
Our penultimate (not a great readability word!) tip isn’t a technical writing tip, as it’s not picked up by writing tools.
But it’s an important one to make your writing more readable for actual people. And that’s when you write, to think about the rhythm of your text.
By rhythm, we mean how the sentences sound when you read them out loud.
It’s particularly impacted by sentence length.
If all your sentences are the same length, it gets repetitive. Repetitive rhythm in writing sounds boring. Vary the length of sentences to sound more interesting.
Avoid using too many short sentences in a row. Doesn’t work. Sounds stupid. Like this. See what we mean? You need a longer sentence to vary the pace after a bunch of short sentences. It’s a better rhythm.
When you read your sentences out loud, listen to the rhythm of the words. Does it feel natural? Does it flow naturally, or does it feel awkward? After a long rambling sentence with many words, add a short sentence. Like this one. Vary your rhythm and you improve your readability.
Tip 10 - Commit to improving readability
Our first tip was to set yourself a readability goal.
Our last tip is to get into the habit of tracking how you’re going against that goal.
Make a commitment to regularly work on improving readability. Do it every day you write.
For example, keep a record of the readability score for each article you write.
Track if it’s going up the more you write. Practice should make your writing more readable.
Look for older articles you can go back and re-edit to improve their readability.
Making your writing more readable is a skill that gets easier the more you practice it. Make it one of your writing habits because readable writing makes you a better writer.
That’s what you want, right?
Conclusion - improve readability
There are more than the 10 ways we’ve listed here to improve your readability. Work with an editor for example, and they’ll give you all these tips and more.
But we chose these 10 because they’re the ones we use most often. That’s because they’re easy to implement once you know what they are.
Use them regularly and your writing will be more readable. Build them in to how you both receive and give creative feedback.
Your goal is to have writing that conveys meaning.
Improving your readability makes your meaning clearer. And that’s something you want right? Readers need to get what you mean, for your writing to have the desired impact. Improving your readability helps you make that impact.
Check out our articles on writing habits and writing about marketing for more on this topic. Or contact us if you need help improving the readability of your writing.
Woman reading Kindle : Photo by bady abbas on Unsplash
Lens : Photo by Paul Skorupskas on Unsplash
Person typing on a laptop : Photo by Glenn Carstens-Peters on Unsplash
Coffee Cup : Photo by Danielle MacInnes on Unsplash
“Yes” in sand : Photo by Drahomír Posteby-Mach on Unsplash
Quiet – Shhh! : Photo by Kristina Flour on Unsplash
Write without fear : Photo by hannah grace on Unsplash
I am bold : Photo by Steve Harvey on Unsplash
Trash sign : Photo by Gary Chan on Unsplash
DJ Mixing : Feliphe Schiarolli on Unsplash
Calendar (adapted) : Photo by Brooke Lark on Unsplash
Girl reading magazine : Photo by Jerry Wang on Unsplash