When writing for the web, it's important to make your copy easy to read. By lowering the reading age of your content, you increase the likelihood of people getting what they want from your page. You should write for a reading age of around 9 years old to reach the broadest range of people in the UK. It’s also important to make your content accessible to visually impaired people using screen readers to access the internet.
The average reading age in the UK is just 9 years old. This is an important time in the development of a person’s reading ability. By the time you’re 9, your brain can drop up to 30% of words in a text and still understand it. Being aware of the readability of your copy also helps you to focus on making it easy to read – regardless of the reading age of your intended audience. Even advanced readers will often skim through content online, so it’s important to make it easy for them to quickly understand your point.
We’re taught that complicated writing makes us better writers – but it’s not true. The best authors and journalists are those who can take complex ideas and convey them in a way that their readers can understand. One of the most celebrated writers of all time, Nobel Prize winner Ernest Hemingway, is famous for writing fantastic stories in a simple, easy-to-read style. Hemingway actually worked as a journalist – and his matter-of-fact style means much of his writing has a lower reading age than Harry Potter.
You can measure the readability of your copy using tools included in software such as Hemingway, iA Writer, and Microsoft Word. Most tools will provide an approximate reading age for your text. This is usually based on the Gunning-Fog index. This tells you how many years of US education a person would need to read your text. A score of 12 is roughly the reading level on finishing high school. Other programs indicate the time the average reader will take to read the text. These are often based on the Flesch reading ease score. This gives a score from 0 to 100 based on how easy the text is to read. A score of 90-100 would be easily understood by an average 11 year old, while a score of 0-30 would be very difficult to read for anybody other than a university graduate.
The Hemingway app is a web-based text editor that visually flags writing that could be improved. It keeps a running score of your text, and highlights specific problems you can fix to reduce your reading age.
Shorten your sentences
Short sentences are easier to read. A study found that readers understood 100% of a given text when the average sentence contained fewer than 8 words. This dropped to 10% when the length of the average sentence rose to 43 words. Thankfully, 90% of people understood the text as long as sentences were 14 words or shorter.
So, keep your longest sentences to around 14 words. A simple refresher about clauses can help us here. Simply put: clauses are the parts of language which have both a subject and a verb. Some sentences are made up of a single clause:
Hemingway wrote this book.
Hemingway is the subject – the person or thing the clause is about, and he performed an action (the verb) when he wrote a book. Other sentences contain more than one clause:
Thousands of people read Hemingway’s book, and many writers amongst them improved their prose afterwards.
Here, we have two subjects (people and writers), and two verbs (read and improved). Look for sentences containing joined-up clauses and turn them into separate sentences. Spot commas in sentences and see if breaking the sentence will make it easier to read:
Thousands of people read Hemingway’s book. Many writers amongst them improved their prose afterwards.
Semicolons often make for complicated sentences. Avoid using them to join clauses when you could use two sentences. You should be aiming to make your sentences short and clear, – so why join them up?
Use simple words
Even highly literate people prefer clear language. People skim through text online, rather than reading every word. If you make them think too hard, they’re more likely to leave your site.
Make your writing as simple as possible by limiting yourself to the 1000 most commonly used words when you can. Try replacing difficult or unfamiliar words with more common ones. This will make your content more readable.
Take these two sentences:
Residents are encouraged to take recyclable materials to their nearest refuse depot.
Recycle your metal, paper, and plastic at your nearest tip.
The first sentence scores just 25 on the Flesch-Kincaid readability scale. The second sentence scores 61 – a big improvement. By using simpler language and common words, we’ve made the text quicker and easier to understand.
This article is an extract from our e-book Writing for the web: creating user-friendly content. If you'd like more great advice on writing readable, engaging, and effective copy, download the e-book for free.