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How to Improve Content Readability: Grammar, Design and Testing

content readability

Content readability should always be in the back of your mind whenever you're creating a blog post, website copy, product description, email newsletter or any other type of content that's meant to attract or appeal to a wide audience. Writers, editors and publishers should constantly be asking themselves if their content is clearly presented and easily understood. Otherwise, all of your efforts to market your business using that content are doomed to fail.

Luckily, readability is easily analyzed and improved by taking a look at your grammar and design choices.

Why Improve Readability?

Content can underperform for any number of reasons. Maybe you're not promoting your content well enough. Maybe there's better and more in-depth content out there that already does a better job of covering the topic you've written about. Maybe your content isn't optimized for search. Maybe the headline isn't engaging or your website's design turns readers away. With so many factors contributing to your content's success, how can you know when it's time to assess your readability metrics?

Some tell-tale signs that your content may need better readability include:

  • High Bounce Rates - If readers arrive at your content through search or social only to bounce seconds later, it's possible the content was too difficult, unclear or poorly written to keep the reader engaged.
  • High Exit Rates - If you have site visitors who spend time on your site but consistently exit after reaching a specific page, the readability of that page may be suspect.
  • Low Time Spent on Pages - Internet users have notoriously short attention spans, but if you're seeing that visitors spend an unreasonably short amount of time with your content, it's possible they're turning away due to your content being too hard to understand.
  • No Social Shares, Even With Paid Promotion - Getting content shared organically is getting more and more difficult, but you should see at least a few shares every now and then if you're paying to promote it. Unless your headline is truly outstanding, however, nobody will share an article that they can't read.

Apart from these trackable metrics, there are other important reasons to ensure content readability. For example, if you're writing blog posts or emails that contain a call-to-action (CTA), you're definitely going to want to ensure your readers understand your writing, especially if the CTA is near the end of your content.

Readability can also be considered a user experience (UX) issue. Google and other search engines are always striving to provide results that offer the best UX, and content readability can play a part in this. While Google has never explicitly stated that readability is a ranking factor, this Tweet from Google's Gary Illyes is pretty convincing evidence that it is:

Content Should be Below an Eighth-Grade Reading Level? Really?

The first step towards improving your content's readability involves analyzing it using the Flesch-Kincaid reading ease test, which analyzes factors such as sentence complexity and word length to determine the education level at which most people would understand a given piece of content. Many experts suggest that content would ideally have a reading ease score of around 60 (an eighth-grade reading level) to be understood by most people. This may seem shocking at first, but it's important to remember that writing at this level doesn't necessarily mean you'll need to "dumb down" your content or restrict yourself from diving into a topic in-depth.

Take for example this study, which not only points out that 50 percent of Americans already read at an eighth grade level or below, but also shows that famous writers like Jane Austen and Ernest Hemingway actually wrote at well below a sixth-grade level. More "difficult" writers like David Foster Wallace and Leo Tolstoy wrote just above an eighth-grade reading level. In other words, aiming for an eighth grade reading level doesn't necessarily limit your possibilities; instead, it only opens up the door for more readers to access your content.

How to Improve Reading Ease

To achieve a more effective reading ease level, consider these factors:

  • Word Length - After writing your first draft, consider eliminating your longest words or replacing them with simpler synonyms. While you may be proud of your extensive and flowery vocabulary, some evidence suggests that overuse of longer words can actually cause readers to perceive your content as less intelligent.
  • Sentence Length - Splitting up your longer sentences into shorter ones can make your content much more concise and simple to read.
  • Punctuation - Punctuation should serve to clarify your writing. If you find that your content is filled with semicolons or sentences that have more than two commas, you may be writing in a way that's hard for the average reader to follow.
  • Active Voice - Writing in passive voice isn't always bad, but too much of it can reduce the impact of your content and potentially even make it confusing.
  • Structure - Scannability is key. Since users rarely read a whole piece of content, you want to provide value by breaking your information up so that a reader can find what they're looking for quickly. Consider using images, infographics, shorter paragraphs, bulleted or numbered lists, and plenty of subheadings to make your content easy to scan.
  • Jargon - Industry-specific jargon can be very difficult to understand. Try having someone from outside your industry proofread your content to see if everything is comprehensible to them.

Design Considerations

Grammar, style and structure aren't the only things to consider when it comes to content readability. In order to make things as easy as possible for a reader, you have to make the physical viewing of your content as easy as possible as well. This involves considering:

  • Font - Fonts like Arial, Helvetica and Verdana are popular on the web because of their readability. Avoid serif fonts whenever possible, as they can make your content appear cluttered.
  • Font Size - At one time, 16 pixels was considered to be the ideal font size for the web. Now, however, readers access the internet using a wide variety of devices. This means that percentage-based font sizes are best, allowing for content that has a large enough font to be read on any device.
  • Color Scheme - The days of crazy color schemes like bright blue text on a red background are long gone, but it doesn't mean that every color scheme seen today is easy on the eyes. Try testing out different color combinations and consult with a web designer to find a style that's most effective.
  • Line Height - Too little white space between lines of text can make your content appear dense and daunting. It can also cause readers to accidentally skip lines. Your content may not need to be fully double-spaced, but 1.5-spacing should be considered.
  • Line Width - Text that goes all the way across the screen will appear far too wide, but text that's too narrow will also be very difficult to read. Again, consulting a designer may help you find the ideal width for text on specific pages of your site:

line width

Content Readability Tools

You don't have to analyze content readability on your own. There are several tools out there that will analyze the Flesch Reading Ease score of your content, while also providing you with suggestions for improving sentence length, passive voice, structure and more. Some of the best tools include:

As Always, Your Readers Come First

Ultimately, you want to create content that you believe to be the most valuable for your readers, regardless of readability metrics. However, if you find that your content just isn't as effective as you'd like, try testing out different versions of it at different reading levels or with different types of layouts and designs. You may find that content at specific reading levels or with specific structures outperforms your other types of content from both a user engagement and SEO perspective. While providing value to your readers should always be your number one priority, presenting your content clearly and concisely will only help your content marketing efforts.

T.J. Anderson

Posted on 30th January, 2018 by T.J. Anderson

About T.J. Anderson

T.J. Anderson is a Chicago-based content editor and writer, as well as an SEO and marketing specialist.

View all posts by T.J. Anderson