Hello again, fellow bloggers! Last month, we talked about how to find and interpret your blog’s readability score. If you weren’t happy with what you found, don’t worry: there are plenty of ways to improve readability and we’ll look at a few today.
Some, such as using shorter sentences, may actually improve your readability score. Others, like font choice and adequate white space, won’t impact your score but are every bit as important. As I said last month, it’s not the score that matters, it’s whether readers find your blog useful and engaging. This month’s tips will help you connect with readers … even if you have no interest in your numerical score.
To give you some examples of these principles at work, we’ll use blog posts about the past month’s most-blogged-about stories (rankings provided, as always, by Regator. (They are, in order: Bin Laden, Memorial Day, Donald Trump, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Lady Gaga, Oprah Winfrey, Cannes Film Festival, Rapture, Tornado, and Dominique Strauss-Kahn.) Here’s how you can start improving your readability right away:
1. Use fewer links
Some studies have shown that links in text reduce comprehension, even if they’re not clicked. The theory is that each time you are presented with a link, your brain pauses, ever so briefly, to assess the situation—to click or not to click? Those little decisions break your concentration and decrease comprehension.
The problem with eliminating all links is that linking can provide additional information, promote your old posts, support your opinion, and build community, among other things. So what to do?
Nicholas Carr suggests putting relevant links at the bottom of your posts rather than within it, which is a valid option. My advice would be to continue to use links but to do so sparingly, with the awareness that they do impact readability. Make sure each link you choose to use serves a purpose.
Examples: Compare CPJ’s “After bin Laden, a warning to foreign journalists,” which is less distracting because of its lack of links with the ACLU Blog of Rights post “The CIA Weighs In: Torture Did Not Help Find Bin Laden,” which features links that provide context and additional information.
2. Use clear language and avoid jargon
Avoiding jargon and using language that is as simple as possible will increase your potential audience. Even if your blog focuses on a niche that uses a lot of jargon or technical terms, such as business or the scientific community, consider whether saying the same thing in another way could help you expand your reach and readership.
Example: Storage Bits’s “Memorial Day 2011: defending the 9th” breaks down the U.S. Constitution’s ninth amendment into simple language and, in doing so, increases readability.
3. Proofread carefully before you publish
Nothing decreases readability like typos or grammatical errors. Everyone makes mistakes (mentioning typos in a post always scares me because that’s inevitably when something sneaks past you), but endeavor to make as few as possible because once you hit publish, your errors stick around on the internet.
Example: Bossip, which, it should be said, is a good blog that makes very few errors of this type, had a typo in its headline “Wait A Damn Mintue: Palin and Trump ‘Palling Around’ In NYC … Are They Joining Forces?“ and though they corrected the error, dozens of sites had linked to the incorrect version before it could be fixed and those links live on in Google.
4. Put thought into your font choice
The serif vs. sans-serif debate has been raging for as long as typography has been studied. (Alex Poole wrote a brilliant post based on his review of more than fifty studies.) Historically, serif fonts have been considered more readable in print but many argue that sans-serif fonts work best online.
Given the lack of a truly conclusive answer, I’m not going to advise you to definitively go with one over the other, but I will advise you to give it some thought. It not only impacts readability but also the general feel and aesthetic of your site. Consider not only serif vs. sans-serif but also line spacing, font size, and the aesthetics of specific fonts. Try timing yourself reading the same text in several different fonts with various spacing options and sizes to see which is fastest and easiest to read.
Example: There are countless font size/spacing/type combinations but start by comparing Gawker’s “Schwarzenegger Son Didn’t Know the Truth Until This Week,“ which uses larger, airier serif fonts, with LAist’s “Oops, He Did it Again: Schwarzenegger Not Being Investigated by Attorney General,” which uses smaller, more tightly spaced sans serif fonts.
5. Use active rather than passive voice
To remind the non grammar nerds among us: In sentences written in the active voice, the subject of the sentence is doing the action. For example: “Wombats write gardening blogs.” In the passive version, “Gardening blogs are written by wombats” (please note that the accuracy of these sentences cannot be guaranteed), the target of the action becomes the subject. So why should you avoid passive voice? Because in most cases, it will tighten your writing and make your sentences clearer, thus improving readability.
A recent Northumbria University study found that less educated readers may struggle to understand passive sentences when compared to active sentences. That’s not to say there isn’t a time and a place for passive voice. It’s useful when you either don’t know or are trying to avoid stating who performed an action (e.g., “The bank was robbed”).
Example: PSFK’s “Lady Gaga And The Future Of Music Albums“ uses active voice throughout the first paragraph but switches to passive for the second paragraph’s first sentence because it would be difficult to accurately list all of the individuals involved in arranging Lady Gaga’s products, events, deals, and appearances.
6. Write to communicate, not to impress
I’m not advocating for the dumbing down of language, but I am encouraging you to use the words that do the best job of communicating your message, regardless of whether you know a longer, fancier way of saying something. Don’t say “utilize” instead of “use” just to try to sound impressive. A writer’s goal is to communicate effectively. We’d all do well to remind ourselves of that every so often.
Example: PopWatch’s “Oprah gives her email out to everyone in the free world!“ uses straightforward language without sounding as though they’ve attempted to dumb it down.
7. Don’t justify text
Text with a ragged right margin is generally considered to be more readable than fully justified text. It provides more consistent spacing between letters and words, increases white space, and allows the eye to keep its place more easily. Unless you have a strong opinion about using justified text for its aesthetic appeal, go with flush-left text with a ragged right margin for readability.
Example: Compare Film School Rejects’s justified “Who Should Have Won Cannes 2011: The (Unbelievably Prestigious) FSR Awards” with 24 Frames’s flush left “Cannes 2011: A spell of conflict, and then (some) resolution” to see how justification impacts readability.
8. Use colors that are easily readable
For visual appeal, you may choose another palette, but for contrast and readability, black text on a white background is your best bet. If you’re going to use colored backgrounds and text, be cautious. Color combinations from opposite ends of the color spectrum quickly fatigue the eyes causing color “vibrations”, as do colors that don’t provide enough contrast.
Keep in mind that certain combinations also make your site less accessible to your colorblind readers. There are a number of sites that show you how your site would look to colorblind visitors—it is estimated that as many as 10% of men are colorblind so it’s not an insignificant concern.
Example: Though opposite, Good’s black on white “’I Don’t Understand’: How Rapture Believers Are Taking It” and Geekologie’s white on black “That Nutjob: Rapture Happened ‘Spiritually’, Apocalypse Still Slated For October 21st” are both high-contrast and accessible.
9. Use as many words as you need, and not one more
Example: Need to Know’s “Twisted logic: What tornadoes don’t have to do with global warming” is a good example of concise writing.
10. Keep sentences and paragraphs short
Reading from an illuminated screen is more taxing on the eyes than reading from a printed page and slows reading by as much as 30%. So avoid large blocks of text whenever possible, keep text scannable by using short sentences and subheadings, and allow for ample white space.
Example: The Two-Way’s post “In Goodbye Note, Strauss-Kahn Denies Accusations” illustrates a number of the points we’ve talked about here by featuring high-contrast text with a ragged right margin, short paragraphs, ample white space, and a large serif font.
Will you be making any changes to improve readability based on these tips? Tell us about it in the comments!
Kimberly Turner is a cofounder of Regator.com, Regator for iPhone and the brand-new Regator Breaking News service for journalists and bloggers. She is also an award-winning print journalist. You can find her on Twitter @kimber_regator.