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Readability: How to Write So Others Will Understand

Instructor: Gaines Arnold
This lesson will discuss how writers can use different tactics and practices to make sure that their intended reader understands the meaning and is able to follow along easily.

Readability

At work, you are tasked with reading a brochure about sexual harassment, for training purposes. Before going home, you want to stop by a friend's house, but it is difficult to decipher their directions. When you finally get home, you settle into the recliner to read an article about your favorite football team. These kinds of scenarios happen all the time. Everyone needs to read and understand different documents throughout the day, in both their business and personal lives.

But sometimes the things we need or want to read are obscure, unclear, or too technical, making them difficult to understand. Readability is key, and anyone who writes, for whatever reason, should understand how essential it is.

When a piece of writing is difficult to understand, it can be tedious and unsatisfying. The readers' enjoyment and comprehension increases when what they are reading is simple to understand. Readability speaks to the ease of reading comprehension.

What Factors are Key to Readability?

Too many times, writers try to impress themselves and their readers with how smart they are, or how well the can use the language. The writer uses long words or sentences that never seem to end. They may believe their work will be enlightening and deliver different shades of meaning, but for the reader, it is often just confusing.

Here are some issues that can make writing difficult to understand, but are easily fixable:

• Jargon: Many different occupations and industries use words that people outside of those fields don't recognize. A nurse may use the phrase 'antecubital space' in normal conversation, but forget to inform her non-medical audience that she means the inside crook of the arm at the elbow. It is where most medical professionals draw blood. So, know your audience and use words that they will easily understand.

• Long words: These are often used where shorter versions with similar meanings would make the prose simpler. Use vague instead of diaphanous, airy for ethereal or noise may be a better term than cacophony. All of these words have their place, but it is usually better to simplify for clarity. Use the smaller word and make it easier on the reader.

• Long sentences and paragraphs: People have relatively short attention spans, so it is wise to make paragraphs short and to provide headings for different sections of work. Ernest Hemingway forged an award-winning career (receiving both a Nobel Prize and a Pulitzer) out of writing very succinct, pointed sentences. He was praised for his ability to wrest a great description out of a few words. Legend has it that he once wrote a short story that could make people cry using only six words: 'For sale: Baby shoes. Never worn.' Brevity and key breaks are essential to readability.

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