Editing for readability: It’s not dumbing down

April 3, 2013 By Rhiannon Root, ACES content intern Conferences

Can a fifth-grader read and understand your writing? Is it a bad thing if one can?

Samantha Enslen of Dragonfly Editorial said “no” during her Thursday morning presentation on readability, where ACES members packed the room and many stood just outside the room’s threshold.

Readability is vital for getting information across quickly and efficiently. It is simply asking if text is something that can be easily understood. Enslen stressed that this is essential in the context of conveying news, not necessarily for fiction or other forms of writing. Easy readability is important when readers are busy and aren’t necessarily paying close attention.

Word choice, sentence length, contractions and jargon are all things to watch out for with readability. That said, jargon is tricky because a wordy phrase may make more sense to a general audience, but not necessarily to a specific one.

Editors can check for readability levels on Microsoft Word or online with sites like StoryToolz, which Enslen uses.

Ideally, editors want to aim for a seventh- to eighth-grade reading level, 14 words per sentence (no more than 21 words) and paragraphs that have an average of 42 words or two to three sentences. Those aren’t strict rules, Enslen stressed, merely guidelines to shoot for.

Writers can be resistant to editing for readability, though, Enslen said. Some of the typical arguments include: my readers are PhDs and very smart, my subject matter is complex and I don’t want to dumb-down my writing to the lowest common denominator.

Enslen put two paragraphs from different news stories on the projector: one from the Wall Street Journal and the other from Popular Science. Audience members agreed that the stories were well-written and included complex subject matter. Then Enslen revealed that both stories had a readability level of about fifth-grade.

Readability isn’t about sentences like “See Spot run.” Enslen says readability is about lively, vivid prose, and clear, understandable copy, while reaching a wider audience of people who are actually reading what you write.

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