Make your content more readable (don't be a grammar snob)

August 4, 2020

Australia is getting a new Commonwealth Style Manual.

Which will mean absolutely nothing to 99.9% of people reading this email.

Good attention grabbing lead in, Sarah.

But it has taught me one thing,

If you want to see language snobbery at its peak, announce a new style manual.

  • "Give me back my unspaced em dashes!"
  • "They as a singular pronoun is grammatically incorrect!"
  • "Writing 1 instead of one. Sacrilege!"
  • "The + in LGBTQI+ is overkill!"

I was once a grammar and spelling snob.

I was also a handwriting snob…

And then I saw Lin Manuel Miranda’s scrawl and decided it was time to get over myself.

I haven’t read the full guide and I wouldn’t say I’m a readability expert (yes, I sound like every internet troll right now) but a lot of the examples I’ve seen used in the media are aimed at readability and inclusion.

And they’re evidence-based.

Do we really care more about sticking to the rules of grammar more than getting the message across?

Do we care more about unspaced em dashes than people?!

Let’s be real, English’s grammar rules were enforced to make life easier way back when. We didn't need too many rules when only a handful of people could read or write. But with printing, came the need for consistency. Our rules have evolved and borrowed from about 1001 languages (maybe an exaggeration?) including Latin. They have changed with technological and social advancement for centuries. And, in my opinion, are downright wild.

Why not mix them up whenever we can?

Also, I recently learnt in Wordslut that Jane Austen used a singular ‘they’ pronoun no less than 75 times across her novels. So there. (It really is my new favourite book and will be referring to it for everything from now on, ok?).

The more things change...

And now, the quick swaps you actually came here for:

Disclaimer: I use phrases like ‘reading with our eyes’ and ‘reading with our ears' to distinguish between when I’m talking about sighted reading or using a screen reader. I’m ashamed to say I don’t know much about reading with hands (braille).

All are reading. All are valid.

Use numerals instead of words for numbers

In school, you might have been taught to spell one, two, three up to nine, and then use numerals for 10, 11, 12. But numerals are easier for our eyes to scan and brains to understand.

Spell out your ‘for example’s and ‘this is’s instead of relying on e.g. and i.e.

Let's ditch the latin. Strangely enough, far more people know what you’re saying when you say ‘that is’ instead of ‘i.e.’

And ‘for example’, in words, is pretty dang easy to read without too many mental gymnastics.

Swap all caps for a first capital letter in acronyms that you say as words

Asio. Nasa. Potus. CSIRO. ABS. ADHD. See the difference? Or should I say, hear the difference? I bet if I were standing face-to-face with you right now, and said “N, A, S, A” it would take you a while to work it out. If at all. But, if I said “Nasa”, it's instantly recognisable.

This capitalisation probably seems a bit weird and icky to you but it makes it more possible for people who read with their eyes OR their ears to have the same experience. Some screen readers will read all caps as individual letters. Not fun if your intent is for the word to be read in full.

Lose the italics, left align your text

When we read with our eyes, we’re looking at shapes and our brain interprets them and gives them meaning. Typically, people don’t read letter-by-letter or word-by-word (although people with dyslexia, lower literacy levels or who are reading English as a second language might).

Either way, the different shapes are really important. We want to give our brains the best chance to get the right meaning from them without friction.

Italicising text, excessive use of “fancy” script fonts or even some serif* fonts, and centering huge blocks of text make those shapes harder to distinguish from each other.

Swap complex punctuation for full stops.

Ok, this one might not work in all scenarios, but hear me out.

I love an expertly placed semicolon. But, I would say that I’m in a minority when it comes to knowing how to use one. And if most people can’t use one, how on earth can they read one the way you intended?

When I find myself wanting to use anything more than a full stop or comma, I ask myself why. Usually, it’s because my sentence is getting too long. I rework the sentence. Drop in a full stop. And rest easy knowing it will be easier to read.

If in doubt, call for help

I constantly refer to these Readability Guidelines from Content Design London. In fact, they’re probably where I learnt the swaps I shared above.

I particularly like the section on ‘words to avoid’.

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Stretch your vocabulary (but not in the way you’d expect)

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