Recently, we published a piece about content readability and its importance as a content marketing success factor. Equally important is understandability as it can be a barrier to accessibility and usability. After all, if your target audience can't read or understand the information you publish then why bother creating it?
The last thing you need is poorly conceived and poorly crafted content that leaves readers wondering what you wanted them to learn. While everyone differs in their cognitive abilities, there are ways to improve text so that it's understood by as many people as possible the first time they read it.
Follow along as we look at eight questions every writer should ask when developing content that doesn't cause cognitive overload or understandability issues.
1. Have You Used Plain Language?
Plain language contributes to an accessible user experience. It's clear, it's easy to read, it's easy to understand, and it's inherently usable. These qualities relate to effectiveness, efficiency, and satisfaction. Unfortunately, information doesn't automatically conform to these characteristics. It's your job as a content creator or publisher to make that happen.
How do you ensure your language is simple and easy to understand?
Proofread your text for misspellings and commonly confused words. While a spellchecker can help you identify the former, it won't always identify words that are spelled correctly, but used incorrectly (E.g. "weary" vs. "wary," "discreet" vs. "discrete," "for" vs. "fore"). When in doubt, use a dictionary
Use active voice rather than passive voice to strengthen your writing. With active voice, you directly link the subject of your sentence with the action, which makes it clear about who is doing what
Avoid long, run-on sentences to help readers remain focused. Short sentences that are no more than 25 words in length are best for readability
Eliminate unnecessary adjectives
Articulate existing ideas in a new, easy-to-understand way
Use conversational language when appropriate
Use metaphors and analogies to improve comprehension. Many people understand ideas better when you explain them in everyday terms
Don't oversimplify things. You don't want to give readers a false sense of understanding what you mean when they really don't
Don't use more than two conjunctions in a sentence
Avoid double negatives as they cause confusion and inhibit comprehension
Limit your use of jargon, idioms, acronyms, abbreviations, and complex words or phrases. As long as it doesn't affect the precision of your communication or change its meaning, replace technical or high-level terminology with common terms whenever possible
Provide the pronunciation of a word when the meaning of a word is ambiguous without knowing the correct pronunciation
Be literal. Some readers have difficulty distinguishing between implied and literal meanings
Include the definition of a word or phrase when necessary
Avoid using unusual or foreign words
Don't use showy or unfamiliar word combinations to impress readers. Clear communication is essential for full understanding
Make sentences easy to process by applying parallel sentence structure conventions
How simply and concisely you write will depend on a range of factors. Most importantly, it depends on your intended reader. Keep in mind that your text should not only be read by humans, but by assistive technology, too.
2. Did You Write For Your Target Audience?
While language might seem plain to one group of readers, it might not seem plain to another. Therefore, you must consider your target audience when writing. Characteristics such as level of education, intelligence, familiarity with the subject matter, motivation to learn, and gender and cultural differences all play a role in your choice of words and writing style.
A knowledgeable, highly motivated, and educated reader could sweep through a lengthy, intellectually challenging article with ease, understanding every word and concept. An average reader, however, might find the task more taxing. Ultimately, you want to ensure that you write according to your target reader's level of comprehension. If you've already defined your user personas, you should be able to develop content around a topic that your ideal reader will feel comfortable reading and understanding.
3. Are Your Ideas Presented In A Logical Order?
A crucial cognitive process happens during natural language understanding: the formulation of coherence. For readers to interpret a piece of text correctly, they must link its meaning to the prior context. A reader already assumes that you've written with an intention and that each new sentence is relevant to the one before it. Therefore, you should help readers establish relationships between the ideas presented in your paragraphs by writing clear sentences in a rational sequence.
Before you can write in a clear style, you must arrange your thoughts in an orderly manner. This ensures your ideas will flow smoothly and build logical bridges to help readers make sense of your text. Be sure to evaluate your piece for coherence before you publish it.
4. Did You Provide Context?
Context, which refers to the circumstances that establish the setting for your idea or statement, has an influence on the way readers understand what you're attempting to convey. This relies heavily on the coherent relationship between your sentences. As a result, you should provide sufficient context for even the simplest of thoughts so that readers can fully understand your meaning.
5. Are You Using The Right Content Type?
A moment of comprehension doesn't always stem from a clearly written text-based piece. Your target readers might have a better understanding of your content if you present it in audio or visual formats. Consider videos, infographics, images, podcasts, slideshows, and similar content types when deciding on presentation mediums. Depending on your subject matter, you might want to try a combination of media to ensure the widest possible audience understands the message you're trying to convey.
6. Did You Provide Practical Examples Where Applicable?
Articles based on complex or technical subject matter are often abstract, making them difficult to read and understand. To avoid confusing readers further, you should provide practical examples to help them conceptualize an idea, process, event, or problem.
For example, in this piece about writing a job description for a social media manager, the position summary was not only explained, but a solid example was provided so that readers can see what a typical summary for this position looks like.
7. Did You Use Alternative Representations To Clarify Meaning Where Applicable?
In addition to practical examples, supplementing your text with visual or audio aids can help clarify the meaning of your content. Diagrams, illustrations, animations, images, symbols, video, and other visual depictions enable people to learn faster and more effectively because the message is communicated in a more concise and simplified way. Make sure you enhance your complicated textual content with formats that improve comprehension.
8. Is The Reading Level Of Your Content Appropriate?
Although you may believe you've created simple, clear, and understandable content, the chances are that some readers will still have trouble perceiving the meaning of your text. That's where readability tests like the Flesch-Kincaid Grade Level index can help.
The algorithms of these tests use mathematical formulas to evaluate a piece of text for reading ease and reading level. The only downside is that they focus mainly on quantitative metrics. Therefore, you can't rely on a formulaic process alone in order to understand the simplicity and clarity of your content. You must consider all factors as outlined and delineated by the eight questions in this blog post.
Even though the results are only superficial measurements of readability, you can use them to gain insight into how readable and understandable your content is. Most experts recommend a 7th-8th grade reading level for general content. Based on your result, you can adjust your writing so that it aligns with the comprehension skills of your target readers. Keep in mind that a lower grade level increases the accessibility of content since a wider audience is likely to understand it.
Writing understandable content for a large audience isn't always easy. This is especially true for niche topics. While one reader feels you're writing for first graders, another might feel you're writing for postgraduate students. The key is to keep the reader, purpose, and context in mind when crafting content. Always aim for simplicity and clarity if you want your content to be accessible and useable. There's no place for convoluted content when it comes to simple, concise, and understandable text.
What steps do you take to ensure your content is understandable? Share your tips and thoughts with us in the comment section below. Don't forget to share this post with authors and web content writers who might find it useful.
Shawn Manaher is the founder and CEO of The Content Authority. He's one part content manager, one part writing ninja organizer, and two parts leader of top content creators. You don't even want to know what he calls pancakes.