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10 easy tips to improve readability

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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 it is to read a piece of writing. 

(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 measure is based on words, the basic building blocks of all writing. There are many different elements which affect the readability of those words. 

Woman standing up on train reading business books on Kindle

The number of letters and syllables they have. 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. You organise your words to make them 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 is highly readable.

Great. But it’s quite broad advice. How do you make these things happen? And how do you specifically improve readability?

Readability testing

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.

Man's hand holding a camera lens in front of a lake with mountains and blue skies in the background

Shorter words and shorter sentences are easier to read. Using more of them improves your readability. 

The most common is the Flesch-Kincaid test. It analyses the total words, sentences and syllables in your text to give you a readability score of 0-100. 

Below 50 is considered difficult to read. For example, academic texts or texts used 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, you want your score to be 60+. This is considered plain English and understandable to 13-15 year-olds. Of course, getting a higher score makes it even more readable. (The readability score for this article is 71.8, by the way).

Online readability tools

Many of these readability tests are available online. They’re a mix of websites, plug-in tools for websites and apps.

You put your writing into them to measure and then improve its readability.

These tools analyse your text and advise you on how to make it more readable. 

Search Engine Journal has a list of 10 different tools you can use. The 2 we use most often are Web FX and Yoast SEO.

Close up on person writing (typing) on a MacBook

Web FX

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. You get results across several readability tests, including Flesch-Kincaid. 

It’s useful for analysing competitor sites. It tells you how clear their writing is, a signal of the quality of the creative thinking behind the brand. Strong brands have readable writing. Weak brands don’t.

Screengrab of Web FX Readability test website - text reads quick and easy way to test the readability of your work.

Yoast

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 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 the first time), and you get a green light. Clearly, that’s what you want.

Screengrab of Yoast SEO readability results showing 7 green lights including Flesch Reading Ease and passive voice.

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. 

Traffic lights with sign stating Australia's most remote traffic lights outside the Daly Waters pub in the Northern Territory

The higher you score over 60 the better. However, 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 are 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 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. 

Coffee mug with the word begin sitting on a wooden table with blurred chairs in the background

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 that 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.

The word yes writing into sand

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. 

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, use shorter synonyms when you can. Short words improve your readability. And stop the reader from 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. 

Screengrab of splasho upgoer five text editor with a simple explanation of marketing

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. Shorter sentences are more readable than longer ones. Seems obvious, right?

Writing the odd long sentence is OK. But they should be the exception, rather than the rule. Use them sparingly and deliberately. Your default should be short sentences. 

Writing expert Roy Peter Clark’s Writing Tools talks about a study which shows how average sentence length has shortened over time. 

A woman with a finger over her mouth making the shhhh signal

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 kill 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. They 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 onto the page. But check those commas when you edit. Break long comma-filled 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 (e.g. see our be a better writer guide). 

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. 

White box with text - write without fear. Edit without mercy. Box is behind an out of focus cactus plant.

With the passive voice, the object comes before the subject and verb. The object has something done to it. 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 : That dog barked at the robber.
  • Passive : The robber was barked at by that dog.

  • Active : John opens the door.
  • Passive : The door is opened by John.

  • Active : She yelled at him.
  • Passive : He was yelled at by her.

You can see passive sentences are longer. They use more words to say the same thing. And don’t they sound a bit clunky? Kind of awkward? Not as clear or readable as the active voice. 

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 the active voice works better.

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 it sounds 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.

Two people sitting at a table with coffee cups in front of them having a conversation

Not every topic lends 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 with long, technical words.

But instead, we wrote much of it using dialogue. Conversations we had with the people in those functions. Dialogue helped us use shorter words and sentences.

It 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 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’re more assertive. 

Neon sign saying "I am Bold"

If you’re not confident saying something, why say it? Focus on the things you’re sure of. 

It’s hard though, right? You worry someone’s going to pull you up on it. But, really, how often does that happen? There’s a big upside to making strong, positive statements when you write. The chances of some pedantic critic calling you out are pretty slim. 

Most 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 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.

Trash sign - illustration of person putting trash in a bin

All of these involve unnecessary words. Some specific examples to watch out for include :-

That

The word “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. So, delete that “that”. Cut it out everywhere you can.

Prepositional verbs

These are verbs which come with a preposition attached. 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. Many prepositions are unnecessary as you can see. 

Check for these as you edit. They’re easy to overlook as they’re usually small. But it’s a simple way to make your writing more readable. 

Adverbs

Adverbs describe how a verb is carried out. But often they’re unnecessary. Especially when the verb itself conveys how it’s carried out. 

For example, he shouted loudly. The loudness is implied by the 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 which work without needing an adverb. 

For example, if sales grew quickly, you could change that to sales boomed. Same meaning. No adverb. Improved readability. 

Stephen King in 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 and fewer sentences make for easier reads. He advises setting a target to reduce your word count by at least 10% on your second draft versus your first draft.

This 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 for.

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.

Google Ads Keywords tool

The usual guide is to use the keyword somewhere between 0.5% and 1% of the time in what you write. So, 5-10 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 it’s long and you use it repeatedly, your readability goes down. 

For example, our article that 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.

The obvious 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 for. 

If you have to include a long keyword, the challenge is 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, losing all 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 affected by sentence length.

DJ in a booth with two laptops showing the music mixes being played

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 flow naturally? Or does it feel awkward? After a long 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.

Commit to regularly working on improving readability. Do it every time you write.

For example, record your readability score for everything you write.

Track if it’s going up the more you write. Practice should make your writing more readable.

Person holding calendar with 9 days crossed out with the letter x

Look for older articles you can go back and re-edit to improve their readability. 

Making your writing more readable 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 do once you know what they are.

Use them regularly, and your writing will be more readable. Use them in how you both receive and give creative feedback.

Your goal is to have writing that conveys meaning.

Young Girl reading book

Improving your readability makes your meaning clearer. And that’s something you want right? Readers have to get what you mean, for your writing to have the desired impact. Improving your readability helps you make that impact.  

Check out our writing habits and writing about marketing articles for more on this. Or drop us a line if you need help with your writing’s readability.

Photo credits

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

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