Tuesday, April 17, 2012
How to Make Your Writing More Readable
How readable is your writing? Wikipedia defines “readability” as the ease with which your text can be read and understood, and says that it depends on various factors such as “speed of perception,” “perceptibility at a distance,” “perceptibility in peripheral vision,” “visibility,” “the reflex blink technique,” “rate of work” (e.g., speed of reading), “eye movements,” and “fatigue in reading.” Most of these factors depend on things other than writing (such as font, number of words used, and line length), but I’d say one involves how you actually write: the “rate of work.” It is easier for readers to relax into writing when they aren’t tripped up by grammar problems and style inconsistencies. When they relax, their “rate of work” goes down. They don’t work—they enjoy and absorb.
We all have our preferences regarding style and “what’s right,” but no one has a problem with reading a writer who’s chosen a certain style and is committing to it. That’s what this post is about.
One: Choose a Capitalization Style
At Turner-Riggs, we choose “up” style capitalization except for the odd cases we choose “down” style (the latter which involves capping only the first word of the title). With “up” style capping (preferred by The Chicago Manual of Style), whether or not we capitalize a word in a title depends on its part of speech. The basic rules are as follows*:
- Capitalize the first and last word in a title, regardless of part of speech
- Capitalize all nouns (baby, country, picture), pronouns (you, she, it), verbs (walk, think, dream), adjectives (sweet, large, perfect), adverbs (immediately, quietly), and subordinating conjunctions (as, because, although)
- Lowercase “to” as part of an infinitive
- Lowercase all articles (a, the), prepositions (to, at, in), and coordinating conjunctions (and, but, or)—other than those of four letters or longer (e.g., with would be With).
If “up” style feels like too much work for you and/or you’re not familiar enough with parts of speech, choose “down” style.
Two: Spell Words the Same Way All the Time
Stick to spelling certain words in a specific way—including how you spell depending on what country you’re from. If you’re writing for a Canadian audience, here are some of the rules:
Canadian spelling does not involve changing the American /-ize/ to the British /-ise/. Canadians are /-ize/ people (e.g., recognize). Exceptions (of course there are—we are talking about the English language!): All words ending in /-cise/, /-prise/ and /-vise/ (e.g., comprise, excise, supervise, televise).
More Canadian spelling:
- Behaviour, favourite
- Centre, theatre
- Chanel, channelled, channelling
- Counsel, counselled, counselling, counsellor
- Enrol, enrolled, enrolling, enrollment
- Focus, focussed, focussing**
- Glamour but glamorous, humour but humorous, rancour but rancorous, vigour but vigorous
- Travel, travelled, travelling, traveller
- A licence (noun) but to license (verb)
- A soccer practice but to practise one’s verbs
- One’s spirits sank, not sunk
Three: Don’t Use a Hyphen to Separate Ideas—Choose Either an En-Dash or an Em-Dash
Using two hyphens in a row to signify an em-dash looks rough, and using a hyphen for a dash looks amateur.
I like the em-dash with no spaces, myself (e.g., “He didn’t want to—and didn’t think he should have to—eat with them every night.”) It’s formed on Macs by pressing Shift, Option, Hyphen (-)—or of course you could insert it via Symbols found in Insert on the top control bar of your screen.
But some people like en-dashes with a space (e.g., “He didn’t want to – and didn’t think he should have to – eat with them every night.”) It’s formed on Macs by pressing Option, Hyphen (-), or again via Symbols.
Next week I’ll post a little something on lists (bulleted and numbered). Choosing a consistent style here is important, too.
If you ever want a thorough style guide for your organization, you can contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org
**Some people have trouble with that double “s”—including me. It’s kind of ugly and Gollumesque. Luckily, we are permitted to drop it if we are consistent: focus, focused, focusing. But again, choose one style and stay with it.