Writing for Readability and Accessibility

We want all readers to readily understand the information we share on our sites. Complex text can be a major barrier for many readers with cognitive or reading impairments. The more readable your text, the more inclusive your site will be.

How to Write Readable and Accessible Text

  • Use short words, sentences, and paragraphs.
  • Use lists instead of serial commas.
  • Omit needless words.
  • Use active voice.
  • Use plain English.
    • Address the reader directly. Use conversational style.
    • Use common words.
    • If domain-specific term is needed, define it in plain English.
  • Score 60+ on the Flesch-Kincaid Readability test.

Try to rework any text that gets a Flesch Reading Ease score below 60

How to get a Reading Ease score

Editing your text for readability

An example of a rewrite for readability

“Before” Example (reading ease: 29)

This website is intended to help students in writing essays and other papers by giving basic information on the proper use and proper acknowledgment of source material.

“After” Example (reading ease: 69)

Learn how to properly use and acknowledge your sources when you write essays and other papers.

Often rewrites for readability prompt other improvements. This rewrite now directly addresses the reader. It’s clearer. It uses active voice. And it omits needless words!

Note that you are not required to revise all the way to 60+. But there is usually some room to improve the readability of any text that scores below that threshold. See Myth 4 for more about how we consider readability scores.

Some common misperceptions (“myths”) about readability

Myth 1: My readers are well-educated. They can handle complex text.

Flesch-Kincaid Reading Ease is a mechanical test that measures reading ease (for everyone).

Higher numbers mean a text is easier to read. Lower numbers mean a text is harder to read.

This is true regardless of educational attainment. Even a PhD will find text that scores at 70 faster & easier to read than text that scores at 30.

A high score does not mean the target audience is young or the content is unsophisticated.

Myth 2: My readers are smart. I don’t need to worry about readability.

Intelligent people can have cognitive disabilities. We have current students who are very intelligent and can understand complex concepts. But these same students may have a reading disability that makes long sentences a barrier to comprehension.

Myth 3: This subject is specialized. I need to write at sophisticated reading level.

Sophisticated concepts can be communicated without complex sentences.

It is almost always possible to rewrite for readability without changing meaning. Not always easy — but possible.

This is where you can apply your expertise as an educator and explainer. George Boolos famously wrote an explanation of Gödel's Second Incompleteness Theorem using only one-syllable words. We're not asking you to do that! But it shows what's possible with a bit of ingenuity.

Myth 4: I can’t achieve a score of 60, so there’s no need to try.

A score of 60 is a goal. It’s not a straightjacket. Wrestled a 25 text up to 45? Don’t see how to raise it further? That’s a major improvement — we’ll take it!

We can help. Send your text to Doug Bratland — he’ll suggest changes to improve readability.

Myth 5: I can’t touch that text. It’s mandated by others.

Sometimes it’s not possible to rewrite a text for readability. Examples include mandated policies, or direct quotes.

Official accessibility standards offer a solution. Write a lower-reading-level summary or abstract and place it before the text.

Why don’t we use grade level?

Earlier presentations on this topic referred to “grade levels” for text. This was confusing because we are usually not writing for actual 8th graders.

When we write for accessibility we are writing for all of our readers. This includes adults who have learning or cognitive disabilities. For example, a senior Physics major may be a brilliant budding scientist — and have dyslexia.

So it is clearer to use this reading ease score. This way we don’t get confused by the language of grade levels.

Web Services and Disability Services can help!

We would love to work with you to revise text for accessibility. Contact Doug Bratland today to get started.