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Being able to connect with your reader is fundamental to any written communication. This is not a new concept. But in the digital age there are additional hurdles to overcome if we want to stay ahead in the race. Now, we not only need our communications to be understood by our readers, we rely on search engines to recognise our content as worthy of their attention. Reading on screen is also a different experience from reading on paper and presents potential barriers to comprehension.

Search engines are demanding quality, easy-to-understand content

Long gone are the days of cramming keywords into poorly written copy to attract the attention of search engines. Ever more sophisticated search engines are now prioritising easy-to-read copy that will keep the reader engaged. For example, Google’s 2013 Hummingbird update allowed the Google search engine to recognise synonyms and theme-related topics. It also understands which words, entities, and content are related to each other.

With the growing number of people searching for information using voice, search engines are also now focusing on this way of searching. Imagine the challenges of listening to unintelligible information with long, poorly structured verbose sentences full of difficult words. This type of written content will quickly be out of the race.

Attracting your reader’s attention is not enough

The basic principle of attracting our reader’s attention, and then maintaining their attention, has not changed. The difference is, with many of us reading communications online, we now have additional hurdles to overcome.

Some researchers have suggested that screen-based reading is more physically and mentally taxing than reading on paper. Depending on the model of the device, glare, pixilation and flickers can tire the eyes. Prolonged reading on glossy, self-illuminated screens have been found to cause eyestrain, headaches, blurred vision and computer vision syndrome.

According to a recent article in Scientific American, evidence from laboratory experiments, polls and consumer reports indicate that modern computer screens  also prevent people from navigating long texts in an intuitive and satisfying way. Compared with paper, the content may be more difficult to remember than what we read on a screen.

How to boost readability of your written communications

These potential technological barriers and search engine developments highlight the critical need to apply the 5 basic principles of writing.

  1. Logically structure the content. Rather than presenting a jumbled mess of ideas, choose a logical structure and stick to it (e.g. topic by topic, problem followed by solution, chronological, step-by-step).
  2. Break it up. Keep paragraphs short (maximum 5 lines) and break up the content using headings, subheadings and bulleted lists.
  3. Write short sentences. Aim for an average sentence length of 15 to 20 words with no single sentence exceeding 30 words.
  4. Eliminate unnecessary words. Avoid wordy phrases and replace them with concise alternatives (e.g. ‘daily’ rather than ‘on a daily basis’).
  5. Choose words the reader will relate to. Technical terminology may be appropriate if you are writing for other professionals in your field. But if you are writing for a broad audience, choose terminology they will relate to (e.g. ‘flood’ rather than ‘inundation event’).

Whether you’re writing a report, a procedure or an article, writing in a way that your reader understands is critical. If your reader doesn’t understand your communication, you will not get the result you need. In the workplace, where we may spend many hours a day reading from our computer screens, this could result in lack of action, errors or lost productivity.

Need help writing clear, concise content that gets results? Contact Concise Writing Consultancy today on 02 9238 6638 or email patricia.hoyle@concisewriting.com.au