Readability (the process of making documents easier to read, understand and respond to) can be divided into two main categories: content and design. Technical writers have to make conscious efforts to make both the information and the document stand out.
Here are a few ways to make papers more readable:
Use simple language whenever possible.
Define complex language.
Choose strong active verbs (avoid passive voice most often).
Sentences and paragraphs:
- Use short sentences on average.
- Use short paragraphs. Look for ways to break one longer paragraph into a series of shorter paragraphs.
- Single space most documents. Skip lines between paragraphs when convenient.
- Use parallelism in lists. Help your reader get from beginning to end.
- Be specific. Give your reader images he/she can see.
- Provide enough information for the reader to understand and respond to. Length only matters to the point of having fulfilled the audience’s needs.
- Don’t provide unnecessary information. Learn to omit material as easily as you add material.
- Use an opening that lets your reader know why you are writing and why they will benefit from reading the information.
- Define unfamiliar language.
- Understand your reader’s needs.
- Use things like boldface, italics and underline to help your reader understand important issues.
- Use headings and sub-headings to help separate sections and to help your reader remember what it is you are focusing on.
- Use columns and bulleted lists to help make items stand out.
- Use white space to help influence the reader to read: psychologically, it looks a lot better when it’s not filled with words.
- Use tables, charts, graphs to pull numbers out of text.
- Place graphics close to the information they pertain to.
- Use objective or symbolic graphics to help your reader see images you are having difficulty describing.
- Use consistent design from beginning to end of the document.
- Choose reader-friendly fonts and prints. Help the reader read the information.
- Don’t let your design overwhelm your content- pick and choose design tools.
This is only a basic review of readability factors. Everything we discuss and evaluate in technical writing relates to the two prongs of technical writing: content and design. The bottom line is, make your documents professional quality.