Readability

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Contents

Introduction

An effective document must be a readable document. That is, the reader must be able to read through it without struggling over any aspect of it. If the reader cannot retrieve the information that they require, in an efficient manner, then the communication will not be effective.

There are a number of factors influencing the readability of a document. One or more of these factors may have been predefined by the client, but the majority of them fall well within the remit of the Technical Communicator.

Factors influencing readability:

  • Material
  • Organization
  • Layout
  • Relationship
  • Reader's situation
  • Language

Material

Clearly, the material contained in a communication will influence its readability. There are four aspects of the material - or more specifically, the material and the reader's relationship to it - that can influence the readability:

  1. The reader's familiarity with the subject matter
  2. The degree to which the material presented is relevant to the subject matter;
  3. The conceptual difficulty of the subject matter;
  4. The degree to which the material meets the reader's needs,

Often, the Technical Communicator will not necessarily be able to influence the actual material itself, but by recognizing the ways in which the material can influence the readability of the document, the Technical Communicator may be able to compensate in other areas of readability.

Familiarity

The amount of new information that a reader of a document has to absorb will directly influence the readability of the document. If the reader of the document is already familiar with the subject, then they will find the document more readable than a reader for whom the document contains entirely new concepts.

One needs to be careful here however, not to veer too much the other way. By assuming that the reader is not familiar with the subject matter and going 'back to basics' it may make the document more 'readable', but if it turns out that the reader does know the basics already, they will have to work harder to extract the new (and required) pieces of information from the information that they already know. This will slow down their absorption of the information.

It is therefore important to determine how familiar the reader is with the subject matter, and then compensate accordingly. Obviously, the easiest way of doing this is to analyze the audience before starting to develop the documentation.

Relevance

TBD

Conceptual difficulty

In most cases, if a document deals with complex subject matter then the document will be more difficult to read. A document on the latest theories in quantum physics will likely be less easy to read than a document on operating a propelling pencil. If the subject matter is conceptually complex then there is little that the Technical Communicator can do about this. What they may be able to do, however, is compensate in other areas - for example, by using shorter sentences and paragraphs, more liberal use of white space, more frequent sub-headings, and possibly re-iterating key points as the document progresses (versus describing a concept early on in the document, and then expecting the reader to retain this information after another 20 pages of text).

Fitness for purpose

For a reader to consider a document as 'readable', the document must be suitable for the reader's requirements. For example, if a reader is changing a gearbox on a car, they will find a set of step-by-step instructions more readable than a conceptual description of how a gearbox works. The conceptual description may be perfectly readable in other scenarios, but it is not readable within this particular context.

You should therefore make sure that you understand the purpose of a document (see also "The Scope and Purpose of a Communication") and then write the document to meet this purpose. Where a document will be used for a variety of purposes, consider splitting the document (at least into sections) by purpose. If this is not possible or practicable, then ensure that the document covers all purposes - do not simply cover one purpose and expect readers to infer information required for other purposes.

Knowing what to exclude is as important as knowing what to include.

Organization

Sequence; data unloading rate; redundancy

Layout

Typeface; headings; white space

Relationship

Between writer and reader; writer's intention; reader's motivation

Reader's situation

Physical state; psychological state; reading ability; environment

Language

The importance of the correct use of language in technical communications cannot be stressed enough.

Vocabulary; simplicity/complexity; grammar; spelling; accuracy

Truly impressive writing uses language that seems to fit its subject matter admirably. It seems accurate, incisive, economical and easy to understand

Poor grammar can be inferred as hiding:

  • Errors in logic / half-truths
  • Glossing over omissions
  • Obscuring uncertainty
  • Unjustifiable claims

Match the style to the purpose of the document (e.g. prose vs. lecture notes)

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