What is Readability?
At its core, readability is a measure of a content consumer’s ability to understand the content. There are many factors that affect how the concepts in the content are comprehended. Some (such as font choice and spacing) have nothing to do with the words, but most factors affecting readability are functions of the words used. For the purpose of this article, we will focus on the content and not the presentation.
The Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development found that 50 percent of U.S. adults can’t read a book written at an eighth-grade level. An eighth-grade level is actively used as a benchmark for written guidelines in the medical industry. Flesch readability scores and Flesch-Kincaid Grade Level are the most popular and widely tested and used measures of reading level. These scales work by taking into account sentence, word, and syllable counts.
Grammatical Voice and Consistency
While sentence, word and syllable counts are important, they don’t address all the issues that affect readability. Use of passive voice often creates unclear, less direct, wordier sentences, whereas active voice creates clearer, more concise sentences. Correct use of punctuation and consistent use of terms will also enhance readability.
Simplified Technical English (STE)
The goal of Simplified Technical English is to reduce ambiguity. This improves the clarity of the technical content, makes content far more comprehensive for non-native speakers of English and creates better conditions for both human and machine language translation.
Readability should be a core part of any content governance strategy. Written style guides rely on the writer’s memory and awareness to drive readability. Electronic style guides and checkers (like Acrolinx, Congree and HyperSTE) are much more effective at driving readability, because the programs perform checks during the authoring/editorial process and drive compliance consistently and programmatically.
Reducing Reading Level
By most measures, reading level is a function of the number of words in a sentence and the number of syllables in the words. For the Flesch-Kincaid, the reading level is calculated by the equation shown here.
To reduce the reading level, JANA will (a) break long sentences into multiple shorter sentences, and (b) change words with more syllables with words with fewer syllables while maintaining the same meaning. We typically provide the Flesch-Kincaid reading level as received and as reworked at a document level, and can provide a ‘red-line’ version of the document so that the customer can see exactly what was changed in the process.
Improving Grammatical Voice and Consistency
Unfortunately, there is not a standard score to measure brevity and clarity. This is because the content author or sponsor typically needs to determine the relative importance of using active voice (instead of passive voice), consistent use of terminology and acronyms, and other factors that may relevant. A passive sentence is a sentence where the subject does not perform the action of the verb. In a passive sentence, the action of the verb is done to the subject.
A few examples:
|Passive Voice||Active Voice|
|The shoplifter was tackled by my cousin.||My cousin tackled the shoplifter.|
|The vase was smashed by Heidi.||Heidi smashed the vase.|
Using active voice for the majority of your sentences makes your meaning clear for readers, and keeps the sentences from becoming too complicated or wordy. Use of passive voice can cloud the meaning of your sentences. Most electronic style guides will identify a readability score based on the relative importance of readability factors. To improve readability, JANA will utilize a content checker and correct items that violate the electronic style guide. We typically provide the readability score as received and as reworked at a document level, and can provide a ‘red-line’ version of the document so that the customer can see exactly what was changed in the process.
Implementing Simplified Technical English
ASD-STE100 Simplified Technical English is an international specification for the preparation of technical content in a controlled language. There is an overlap between STE, reading grade level and readability. This standard sets rules to govern compliance in the following ways:
- Sentences should be no more than 20 words (for procedural sentences) or 25 words (for descriptive sentences)
- Paragraphs should contain no more than six sentences
- Avoid any type of slang or jargon
- Use active voice; avoid passive voice
- Sequential steps should be written in separate sentences or as bullets rather than in one long run-on sentence
- Gerunds and present participles should be avoided
- Articles “a” and “the” should be used wherever possible
- Simple verb tenses are preferable (i.e., past, present, future)
- Any instructions should be as specific as possible to avoid ambiguity
A few examples of Simplified Technical English:
|Standard English||Simplified Technical English|
|All levers must be turned slowly in order to prevent strong steam jets which can damage both hose lines and components.||Turn all levers slowly to prevent strong jets of steam.|
Steam can damage hose lines and components.
|All levers must be closed manually.||Close all levers by hand.|
|Standing close to the levers when the system is under pressure is not recommended.||Do not stay near the levers, if the system is pressurized.|
|Eliminate all sharp edges.||Remove all sharp edges.|
To implement Simplified Technical English, JANA will utilize a content checker and correct items that violate the ASD-STE9100 standard. We typically provide the STE compliance score as received and as reworked at a document level, and can provide a ‘red-line’ version of the document so that the customer can see exactly what was changed in the process.
Words matter. Using words, sentence construction, grammar, and unambiguous terms improves reader comprehension and customer satisfaction. Improving the user experience should be a core goal of content creators.