I may have mentioned that back in a "previous life" at the Gould Voice Research Center, I was the PI on the dissemination component of a large grant funded by the NIH. Back then, when people asked me what I did, I often quipped, "Diplomacy and translation services."
While that may have been a tongue in cheek description of my duties, actually it was pretty spot on. Often as communicators in the sciences our task is to "translate" the activities and findings of researchers not only into language that is easily understandable by lay audiences, but translating the findings with these 3 key questions in mind:
- Why does this matter?
- How do I benefit?
- What have you done for me lately?
The average score of our general audience summaries is around 65. Stakeholder summaries average a score of 30.
When writing for the Web, remember that less is more. The bullet points from the banners hanging at the reception for stakeholders at the statewide meeting are also available in the Toolkit.
A common question I get on this topic is "Isn't that dumbing it down?" No, it's being an effective communicator, and understanding your audience.
Last Friday I spent the day with some Master Gardeners conducting a Carewords workshop. In these workshops we spend a lot of time reviewing existing Web sites and making recommendations.
As the day unfolded I was reminded again of the most useful Web editing tool available to everyone: the return key on your keyboard.
Just a half hour spent "chunking up" your current Web content will make it easier to read online.
It's easy to forget that writing for the Web is different from writing for print. Remeber that people don't read online - they scan.
Keep your paragraphs short. For online reading, a one-sentence paragraph is fine.
White space is good.
So spend a half hour simply dividing your paragraphs into smaller chunks and you'll have instantly improved readability.
By now we've all heard the mantra that visitors to Web sites don't read, they scan. This drives the need to keep your copy concise, the Carewords research, and the 10-second rule.
New research from Jakob Nielsen shows an even greater need to make sure your content gets to the point.
Nielsen's new usability studies show that on-line reading is characterized by an F-pattern. That is, people will read most of the first line of copy, but the portion of successive lines read will be increasingly shorter.
In fact, Nielsen's research indicates that only the first 11 characters of a word string are needed for most users to understand content.
When is this most apparent? When content is already abbreviated:
- Links and headings
- Search returns
- Frequently Asked Questions
- Product listings
- Lists of archived materials such as newsletters and media releases
For more information about the usability study - including examples of best and worst links, you can visit Nielsen's Alertbox.
If you attended one of Bob Johnson's "Writing Right for the Web" workshops last April you know that one of the key take-aways was the importance of writing clear, concise, customer-centered content. Short sentences, bullet lists, short paragraphs, and space for the eye to rest all contribute to making your content Web-friendly.
I recently discovered a feature in Word that is pretty helpful when writing for the Web. The Readability Analysis Tool is buried in your spelling preferences. Once activated the tool tracks:
- Sentences per paragraph
- Words per sentence
- Characters per word
- Passive sentences
This information alone will help keep your writing clear, succinct, and active - all keeping your content Web-friendly.
Your writing is also given Flesch Reading Ease and Flesch-Kinkaid Grade Level scores.
The formula for the Flesch Reading Ease score evaluates average sentence length and the average number of syllables per word. Text is rated on a 100-point scale; the higher the score, the easier it is to understand. For most standard documents, experts suggest that you aim for a score of 60 to 70.
After running the tool, if I find the score on my copy is not where I want it to be for the audience, simply shortening the sentences and paragraphs, re-working text to include bullet points, and re-writing any passive sentences, will alter the score.
Here's how to access the Readability Analysis Tool in Word 2004 for the Mac. Under the Word menu, select Preferences, then select Spelling and Grammar.
Then check the box next to Check Grammar with Spelling. The option Show Readability Statistics will then be enabled, click that box as well, then click OK.
If you're using Word 2003 for Windows: On the Tools menu, select Options. Select the Spelling and Grammar tab. Again, check the box next to Check Spelling with Grammar, then check the box next to Show Readability Statistics, then click OK.
After you change these settings, you'll automatically get Readability Statistics every time you run a spell check.
If you're using a Mac, you'll also notice that you can change the Writing Style settings in this same Preferences window. The default setting is Standard but there are settings for Technical, Formal, Casual, and Custom.
In both versions of Word, you can also change the settings for other grammar options, such as checking for the last serial comma, the number of spaces between sentences, jargon, gender-specific words, and sentence-length.
On the Windows version, these settings are accessed under Settings.
As always, use this as a guide - the software can't do your thinking for you.
I always copy my finished content from the Web editor in the ANR Blog system or Site Builder into Word and run the spelling and grammar check from there. You never want to compose in Word and copy and paste into the editor - all of the coding that works behind the scenes in Word will make a mess of your copy in the Web editor.