Readability is something your readers should not concern themselves about. It is your job, as a technical writer, to make sure that ‘OMG this is so difficult to read’ never crosses their mind. This is not something, however, that can be approached mindlessly and solved just like that. To improve readability, first, you need a deep analysis of your text because it relies on a number of things.
When you get the clear picture of where you are standing at the moment, you can start working on a plan to improve it. Further on, we will break down the main factors impacting readability, starting with the big one — words.
Words stand at the core of your readability. Of course, the main metric here would be the word choice. It means how many terms and abbreviations you are using, how many letters a word has on average, etc. The next important thing here is the word count. Have you considered the average read time your help topics should have? Limiting max read time is a good practice — seeing a wall of text, a user can label the help topic as ‘unreadable’ immediately.
Words constitute sentences — the next building block of a text. Length and complexity of grammar structures play a part here. Shorter sentences win the readability prize.
Sentences make up paragraphs. If things like word and sentence length can be hard to catch at the first glance, paragraphs are something every reader will see and subconsciously evaluate right away. Paragraphs bring structure and help digest any text for there’s the golden rule — one idea per one paragraph. And when it is applied, reading becomes so much easier.
Page Design and Layout
This aspect is not connected with the writing process directly, but it is way too important to leave out. Never underestimate what positive results having great user manual design can bring. Read more here — Design Tips for Technical Writers.
Tools for Evaluating Text Readability
Relying on your own subjective opinion in regards to readability of help topics is not going to work most of the time. You need a fresh perspective, and impartial, too. Since most things readability is based around are very straightforward, it can be calculated. Actually, the so-called readability score was introduced a while ago. And, if you search the Internet, you will most likely stumble upon plenty of tools and services of this kind.
You need to feed them texts that they will analyze and come up with a general score, kind of a readability index. The higher it is, the easier your texts are for readers. The results can be often linked to the educational background of readers who are suited best for the text difficulty. I can hear you going ‘Ugh, another tool?’ Technical writers have to use a lot of tools, I am not even counting the main one — the help authoring tool, so adding one more just doesn’t feel right.
At ClickHelp, we are familiar with what a help authoring process looks like, so we took that into account, and are happy to let you know that ClickHelp comes with dozens of ways to measure readability out-of-the-box. Having this functionality always at hand is very convenient, no doubt! You can play around with it and leverage it for your specific use case.
You might want to try and compare readability scores of help topics written by different authors. Or see the correlation between a help topic’s popularity and helpfulness and its readability score. Just try this out and you figure out how to apply this best. And, yes, in case you are wondering, this feature is available in the free 30-day trial of ClickHelp (actually, you will get access to all the features in this trial, no limitations!). Give it a shot! I am sure a lot can be improved with the right toolset.
Readability may seem something fleeting and subjective. But, in reality, it follows certain patterns and sets of rules. You can try figuring them out on your own or simply use a ready tool developed by pros — the choice is yours. Whatever you pick, working on readability is a great idea and your readers will certainly thank you for awesome user manuals later!
Good luck with your technical writing!
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