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Creating the Perfect Level of Writing For The Audience

Something to help me find the $10 words

     
9:09 pm on Mar 20, 2009 (gmt 0)

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I have a brilliant writer who writes well. The problem is she has a vocabulary that is too high level for the web. I have tried to have her pull back, but no good. It is just part of her style. Problem is your average reader has a vocabulary of like a 4th grader.

I am getting a little tired of editing her docs to find all the $10 words. Is there a software out there that will analyze text and identify words in a doc that are above the average person's reading level?

I suspect not (other than a bonafide editor) but I thought I would ask.

2:38 am on Mar 24, 2009 (gmt 0)

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Are you sure your writer is really brilliant? Or does she just know a lot of big words?

More important than vocabulary is the sentence structure that a writer uses. Are the paragraphs and sentences arranged logically? Does one thought flow into another?

Are sentences relatively short? Are they mostly written in the active voice?

Academic writing can be brilliant but it is very difficult for most of us to wade through, unless we are also working in an academic setting at the time we are perusing the document in question.

On the other hand, if you are writing for a stuffy academic or scientific audience, they may actually be offended by clear, concise writing. Makes things sound too simple, you know.

In short, writing has to be appropriate to its audience. Your writer may be perfectly tuned in to your readers or she may not be. There's no easy way to know. That's why publications have editors -- to ride herd on the writers.

What you might want to do is find a publication that is respected and successful in your field, then try to recruit one of its editors on a free lance basis to do a review of your site and, if necessary, do a workshop session with your writer to get her on the right path.

2:55 am on Mar 24, 2009 (gmt 0)

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ergophobe: While Shakespeare may write well, I think I'd not read his description of HP laptops.
6:08 am on Mar 24, 2009 (gmt 0)

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Making a reader comfortable with your pages is more effective than trying to guess their intellectual level. Active verbs help a lot.

Depending on the subject, point of view should be considered.

Just because someone can read at a certain level doesn't necessarily mean they enjoy it.

Many non-scientific works can be written in a conversational tone.

8:23 am on Mar 24, 2009 (gmt 0)

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My tips for webcopy writing.

1. Read it out aloud.
2. Leave it a day
3. Read it out again.
4. Don't be clever.
5. Know your market.
6. Apply persuasion theory in the written style.
7. Bite size chunks.
8. Linked menu inside document to help send visual cues on large docs.
9. Say "so what" at the end of each sentance, and ask does what I'm saying add anything.
10. Use one word instead of two.

12:26 pm on Mar 24, 2009 (gmt 0)

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2clean, great list! Especially 1, 2 & 3.
4:37 pm on Mar 24, 2009 (gmt 0)

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The average American has the reading comprehension level of an 8th grader, which is why most instructions that come with products are written to that level. Sad (and scary) but true.

That said, good writing can only come from a talented human, never a machine or software program.

4:49 pm on Mar 24, 2009 (gmt 0)

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1. Read it out aloud.
2. Leave it a day
3. Read it out again.
4. Don't be clever.
5. Know your market.
6. Apply persuasion theory in the written style.
7. Bite size chunks.
8. Linked menu inside document to help send visual cues on large docs.
9. Say "so what" at the end of each sentance, and ask does what I'm saying add anything.
10. Use one word instead of two.

11. eliminate sentences that repeat the thought communicated in a previous sentence.

11:01 pm on Mar 24, 2009 (gmt 0)

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The Flesch Readability Score was devised by Rudolph Flesch

also, when people talk about a particular piece being at a particular "grade level" (e.g., newspapers), they are often referring to the Flesch-Kincaid Grade Level score, not the grade level of the readers.
The FKGL is a score that you can give to a text based on sentence and word length. The higher the score, the harder to read, and if your text is above a 10 it's probably tough going.

These measures are based on sentence length and word length, and while they're not perfect, they're a good rough guide.

The problem is she has a vocabulary that is too high level for the web.

Like someone else said, the New Yorker is on the web.
I think you mean "too high level for the site's target audience". But if that's the case, I agree with others... if you can't write to your target audience, you're not "brilliant", you're a showoff.

3:38 am on Mar 25, 2009 (gmt 0)

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>> 11. eliminate sentences that repeat the thought communicated in a previous sentence.

I'm not sure I agree with this. Much writing advice says that if you want a reader to grasp a point, you have to make that point 3 times.

It depends on the message you are trying get across to the reader.

8:33 am on Mar 25, 2009 (gmt 0)

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To tweak this:

>> 11. Ensure that each sentance builds on or compliments the idea or concept being communicated with the user but don't say the same thing twice.

6:30 pm on Mar 25, 2009 (gmt 0)

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First, assume the visitor to the web site can READ. No matter how "dumb" your copy if they can't read it makes no difference.

Second, communicate directly, actively. Information sites have a style which is NOT fiction prose or poetry.

Third, don't worry about "grade level". The kids love to tackle new things (I was reading at 10th grade level in the 5th grade). Adults, even lazy ones, can tell when they are given pablum instead of steak.

Fourth, unless offering a technical site where the terminology dictates word usage, avoid big words, long sentences, and passive voice.

Rule one (comes before first) READ IT ALOUD. Better yet, have someone ELSE read it aloud to YOU. If it does not sound natural it might not be the best choice.

2:29 am on Apr 2, 2009 (gmt 0)

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Perhaps the key thing I learned from the Barry Tarshis book was "focus control".
As you write, be mindful regarding the reader's chain of thought. Don't break it unwittingly.

Doesn't mean every para should simply follow from the previous one; but when you do change tack, do so deliberately. Indeed, it's good to have "chapters" within articles.

- no matter how dumb or high-falutin your language, focus control is hugely important.
I hope there's no software that can tell you about this!

5:54 pm on Mar 17, 2010 (gmt 0)

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The essence of writing is , that you express yourself and the person who reads it should understand it. If you have language that just bounces an average reader than you compact your target audience yourself.And here i don't mean that you shouldn't complex words, even if you need them.
4:07 pm on Mar 19, 2010 (gmt 0)

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Never use a big word when a diminutive one would suffice.
4:46 pm on Mar 19, 2010 (gmt 0)

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This one has come back to life a bit but I'll jump in here too (for the record).

I was asked to provide comment on a welcome kit our company sent out to our customers. The demographics were the general population. I was doing customer satisfaction research at that time.

When I read the document I realize the Director that helped write the document put together a booklet that would impress her boss. That's a mistake because our VP was not the "average" customer.

Using Census and literacy information, I proved that we should write closer to the 6th grade level. This is not insulting to anyone's intelligence; it's just a better way to communicate ideas.

Our company used a local literacy agency to gain insights on how to write in this style. We adopted the approach and someone else (not me) won an award from a national literacy agency for the initiative.
4:46 pm on Mar 19, 2010 (gmt 0)

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Never use a big word when a diminutive one would suffice.


LOL - I missed this the first time.
5:17 pm on Mar 19, 2010 (gmt 0)

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I'm surprised the Web Accessibility Initiative hasn't been mentioned yet. "Success Criterion 3.1" is readability: "Make text content readable and understandable." I'm going to go out on a limb here and assume that links to pages on the W3.org site are permitted:

Understanding Success Criterion 3.1.5 [w3.org]

How to Meet SC 3.1 [w3.org]

Among other things, the WCAG recommends a reading level no higher than 9th grade (lower secondary education). It also recommends using sentences that contain no more than two conjunctions, and using sentences that are "no longer than the typical accepted length for secondary education (Note: In English that is 25 words)."

Even for scientific content that is aimed at professionals and specialists with higher educations (and presumably higher intelligence), the WCAG recommends including a "readable summary intended for a general audience with eight years of school."

I personally think the WCAG goes a little too far with some of its recommendations, but there's a lot of good info there about making your site readable and accessible to as many people as possible.
11:45 pm on Mar 20, 2010 (gmt 0)

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We have had this discussion before. Personally, the Encyclopedia Britannica approach is the favoured one. Also, far better that you genuinely get to know and understand your audience - and their informational needs - than consider adhering to such glib guidelines.
6:15 am on Mar 28, 2010 (gmt 0)

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IMO, style over substance may get you a little notice from "literary" readers, but I believe the latter will get and keep a greater and more loyal following. Just my opinion.
9:04 pm on Apr 4, 2010 (gmt 0)

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I don't have a recommendation for software. And I haven't seen the content in question. But from the perspective of a content writer, I'm wondering if this person truly is such a good writer if she can't manage to produce accessible copy.

<rant>

To me, writing is about communication. Get the idea across while causing the least amount of irritation in your reader and you've succeeded. Don't and you've failed.

Bad writing can be easy to mistake for brilliant because it's so obvious. "Wow, that was a big ol' sentence! Didn't mean anything to me, but it sure sounded good! Hmmm. Think I'll just mosey onto another website, though..."

Readers should never become aware of the writing in the copy - or at least, not much. Good writing's nearly invisible. With good writing, you just notice what's being said.

If you notice the writing, chances are that either the writing is clumsy or the words aren't conveying ideas at all - they're obscuring them through elaborate sentence structure or sophisticated diction. Check out Orwell's essay, "Politics and the English Language" for a nifty discussion of writing that looks great on the outside, but....

Basically, you know it's good writing when you're gripped by the idea more than how it's expressed. Vocabulary schmabulary! Good writing will actually send readers happily to a dictionary to look up the odd unfamiliar word.

I'd worry less about vocabulary than about finding yourself a writer who can communicate your ideas to your audience. That takes more than the right vocabulary. No personal offense meant to you or your writer, but a good writer is less interested in the beauty of the words on the page than she is in sparing the reader from having to wade through yards of tangled wordage.

I (obviously) get riled by writers who assume their job is to produce text according to their whim and that the reader's job is to interpret it, no matter how unpleasant a job that is. Nuh-uh. The writer's job is to pick good words and use them well, so the reader can sit back and enjoy.

And that doesn't have to mean using a dumbed down vocabulary, either.

</rant>

In other words, what jhood and bizminder said. :)
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