Whenever someone reads your writing, the most complex object in the universe is performing one of its most challenging tasks. If everything works, it’s effortless, creating very little cognitive load. Your readers don’t consciously move their eyes, decipher letters, or sound out words. Instead they inhabit a world you created — hearing voices, seeing visions, feeling sorrow and joy and awe.
But if the reading is difficult, their consciousness gets dragged back to the work of decoding the message. The pure flow from page to mind is broken. They’re no longer learning, or solving a problem, or hearing a story…
Most advice today on making your writing more readable is based on a 1948 psychology paper that had one focus: shorter words and sentences. In the article below I discuss that classic tradition, plus a few recent variations, as useful background for the larger approach I develop in other pieces. Here’s an outline for this piece:
I first heard about readability over lunch with my friend…
I’ve sometimes wondered if readability and translatability are related qualities. If so, what could they teach me about each other? Among other things, I hoped to solve the problem of writing in a way that’s readable for a wide audience, but still enjoyable, intelligent, and artful.
When I say a thing is translatable, I mean it can be easily ported to a different language without loss or change of meaning. Some readers remember the Chevrolet Nova, the car with a name that roughly translates to won’t go in Spanish. If your article or story might someday be machine-translated for a…
In this connected world, a surprising number of readers have reading difficulties. Knowing how to write for their needs can expand your audience. At the same time, it can help make your work more readable for normal readers.
Three things to consider:
A moment from school has remained with me for years. I’m seated near the auditorium stage, where visiting primatologist Frans de Waal stands beneath projected photos of chimpanzees in the wild. We see two furious male chimps who have just separated to avoid violence. They sit 20 feet apart, hunched on the forest floor, staring in opposite directions.
As de Waal tells us the story, in the photos we watch an older female approach one of the males and cautiously begin to groom him. Because of her age, sex, and status, she may be the only member of the troop…
This is a transcript of last week’s televised broadcast, “Phone-in Science News with Bob Meyers”. The US Now cable network assumes no responsibility for inaccuracies.
BOB: My guests tonight are Dr. Joan Sheffield, a Nobel prize-winning professor of physics at MIT, and Bingo, a tufted capuchin monkey. Welcome, Bingo and Dr. Sheffield.
BINGO: Hey, Bob.
BOB: Now Dr. Sheffield… my, that’s quite a mouthful. May I call you Joan?
SHEFFIELD: Well —
BINGO: Sure, why not?
BOB: Great. Now Joan, in addition to being a teacher, you’re the director of the National Institute of Information Research.
Jim Foley, Silicon Valley tech writer