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Reading should be painless

Improve the readability of your business documents by Giulia De Cesare, Senior Trainer at Plain Words Ltd

Business writing has to sound business-like, doesn't it? But too often this means dry, wordy and outright boring.

Nobody reads business documents for the fun of it. (We hope this doesn't come as a shock to too many of you.) People read them to get information, and they want that process to be as painless as possible

Are you shooting yourself in the foot?

Are you choosing words that do other than inform? Look at the difference between these two sentences:

Aim for a happy medium

In the first one, you struggle to get to the point: oh, look, it says they've done it before.

The second version essentially says the same thing, but at the other extreme of simplicity. In normal business writing, you ought to aim for something in between these examples.

Length of sentences

The scores come from Microsoft Word™'s spelling and grammar checker. As they show, several factors make your writing more readable. An important one is the length of the sentences.

Another is the length of the words: in the first example, the average word length is 6.3 letters; in the second, 4.2.

Average reading age in the UK is nine

This means that anything written for the public should have a reading score of 90–100. Mass market newspapers fall into this range.

Broadsheets like The Telegraph or The Guardian aim for scores of 70 to 90, so are readable by 12–13 year olds. A typical best-selling novel can be read by 8–10 year olds.

Check your own readability

To check the readability of your writing using Word's grammar checker, go to Tools–Options–Spelling and Grammar. Make sure that “Show Readability Statistics” is ticked. Then select the text you want to test and select Tools–Spelling and Grammar.

At the end, it'll ask if you want to check the remainder of the document. Click “no” and you'll see the readability statistics.

Here's what the reading ease scores mean:

30 to 40Very difficult
40 to 50Difficult
50 to 60Fairly difficult
60 to 70Standard
70 to 80Fairly easy
80 to 90Very easy

If your document scores much less than 65, then your reader might struggle to understand your meaning. As I said earlier, nobody reads business documents for pleasure.

Anything that makes it hard to grasp the content increases the likelihood that your writing won't be read, or acted on.

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