Friday, November 11, 2005

Readability

Writings' readability is its ease of understanding. Under-standing is mental weight lifting and requires effort. As tested, understanding therefore requires two things: the ability to understand and the effort to understand. So, readability is a function of both complexity and the average reader's willingness to make the required effort to understand.

Readable writing is considerate of the reader, writing that communicates effectively with minimal reader effort.

Most American fiction is readable at a 6th-to-8th grade level. Most nonfiction books for a general audience are readable at a 7th-to-9th-grade reading level. Occasionally the subject matter requires a 10th-grade reading level because of the terminology (as in books on health). That's what your competitors are achieving. And that's what American readers expect.

The facts don't say Americans can't comprehend writing above an 8th- or 9th-grade level: they say Americans don't comprehend writing above that level. Some can't, but most just find it tedious, declining to spend the required time and effort.

In other words, their eyes may pass over the words, but they aren't bothering to actually under-stand anything they'd have to pause to under-stand. If a sentence doesn't make sense to them, they don't pause to reread it. In the end they have a foggy idea of what the writing was about and little comprehension. People only dig into writing at high reading levels in something they must read or in something of special interest to them.

So, if you want to communicate effectively, communicate efficiently: make your writing as readable as possible.

Outside the United States there's less competition for publication, so the readability standards aren't so rigorous.

The chief enemies of readability are:

  • words some readers don't know
  • abstractions (chiefly in words of three or more syllables like abstraction)
  • unnecessary words (fog)
  • sentences too long to easily follow
  • complex constructions that confuse readers and throw them overboard so that they must keep reanalyzing and rereading sentences to make sense of them — if they can

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