Beyond Words: Writing for Readability

Andrea Ayres
Apr 14, 2014 · 9 min read

Treat your reader with respect. Do not underestimate their intelligence or willingness to go on a journey with you. They want to go with you, but you need to give them a compelling enough reason to follow you.

These were the lessons my teachers tried to impart on us, their eager—albeit green—students. The more I write, the more truth I find in those lessons. Perhaps even more so considering I write for an audience using digital devices.

Reading online is not the same as reading a book. There are limitations and if you want people to read what you have to say, you’ve got to know them.

The brain has no reading center

There is really no reason why we should be able to read and yet here we are. If you consider the history of humans, reading is a relatively new skill that we’ve acquired. The Gutenberg Press is only about 560 years-old, to put that in perspective modern humans are about 150-200,000 years-old.

When you read something you activate at least three distinct areas of your brain:

Your knowledge of a language (semantics), the way words sound (phonology), and how that word is supposed to properly appear within your known language (orthography)—work together to create the experience known as reading. This entire process takes around 300-400 milliseconds, but your brain has to decide to move onto the next word by the 100th millisecond. That’s not a whole lot of time.

Which is why when you read this sentence:

This little piggy went to market.

You see an image of a pig walking to a market in your head. You’re using everything you know, the word, your language, how you’ve seen those words used before, to create a mental image in your head. According to NPR here is what is happening:

The brain appears to be taking words, which are just arbitrary symbols, and translating them into things we can see or hear or do.

Creating that imagery in your head is how you understand the abstraction that is written word.

When you are reading you also develop a physical landscape for the words. As Scientific American explains, a book has physical borders and those help us root our reading and understanding of its contents. The tactile process of turning a page, of rifling through something, actually helps your brain maintain the organization and relative whereabouts of a books contents.

Reading online then presents us with a specific set of challenges. You can’t sort through that text in the same way.

This matters.

When you read on a computer the amount you can read and the level at which you are reading is diminished. Your brain has to work harder in order to extract the information necessary to comprehend the text. This is because you can only ever really experience that text one page at a time.

Your brain is trying to place that text within a structure that you just don’t know and that’s no easy task (kind of like making a sand castle one piece of sand at a time).

Another challenge of web content is the light emanating from your computer, which we know causes visual fatigue. Your ability to read a text, to understand that text, depends on how easy that text is to read. This legibility is impacted (in part) by resolution, other light pollution, and contrast.

We also over-estimate our ability to understand text quickly when reading materials online. What you think you know and what you remember just isn’t the same when reading on a digital device. What you end up doing is not allowing yourself enough time to fully intake the information. Instead, you just end up moving to other information you assume is relevant.

This is also known as scanning.

You will be most drawn to the information that is important to you, looking for keywords that match this information. Often without even knowing it, you disregard the other text presented.

Your reading becomes non-linear, it looks more like this:

http://proswrite.com/2013/06/29/want-satisfied-workplace-readers/

You want to click on that text, scroll, find out what else is going on. You may even find (as people from this Washington Post article did) that they have difficulty reading books now. The book feels too long, the experience too passive for the digital consumer. This is what we would expect—it is what you would want from a brain that is constantly adapting, growing, and learning.

Still, it does present certain challenges when writing online versus writing for a printed document. So how do you bridge that gap between the tactile world of books and the digital text?

The Importance of White Space

If you are a purveyor of online content you have a duty to your reader. How text looks greatly impacts the willingness of your reader to interact with that text.

You can also notice the effects of white space in printed media:

Top: Vanity Fair by William Makepeace Thackeray Bottom: Heartsnatcher by Boris Vain

Every time I open up Vanity Fair to try and read it, I am overwhelmed by the near non-existent margins and minuscule text. Conversely, the generous margins and text of Heartsnatcher makes me want to read it. It gives my eyes a break.

Readers go through a similar process when they first arrive at a website. They are looking for that negative space (also referred to as white space). Negative space is the part of the web page that is left unmarked.

One of the finest examples of writing regarding white space is from designer Mark Boulton. He argues that all white space must be considered (especially the white space between letters) as even small adjustments to this can alter a readers interaction with a page.

Imagine if all of my writing here looked like this:

a disaster

Ew.

White space instructs the reader without having to explicitly tell them where to go or what to take away. When used correctly, it gives the page order, purpose, and direction.

Here’s an example of white space being used incorrectly:

via: http://gsgadblog.files.wordpress.com/2013/03/bella.jpg

That makes my eyes burn.

I have a very bad perception of that web page based only on the fact that it is a total clusterfuc* of information.

There’s a psychological reason for this, we associate white space with sophistication, elegance, and luxury.

If economy and conservation were your chief concern, then white space would be at minimum; obviously you would use it all up. So white space is used for purely semiotic values; for values of presentation which transcend economic values by insisting that the image of what you present is more important than the paper you could be saving.—Émigré no.26, 1993.

People want to know that you are looking out for them, that you have considered what you are putting into writing or onto a web page. White space helps you do this.

Headings & Bullets & Titles, Oh My

If you present your audience with a wall of text they will leave you swiftly and without apology. People view their time as precious, they want to find the information they are looking for and then move on. This is why people scan webpages.

When you give them a block of text and no white space, no headings, and nothing to help them locate the information they need…well you are just making it too damn hard on them.

http://www.whalesonggames.com/forums/attachment.php?attachmentid=3139&d=1358709456

People scan a webpage for different reasons, their scanning can be:

  • Motivated: The desire to read the website (recommended by someone).
  • Directed: Looking for something specific (an answer to a question).
  • Impressionable: Not looking for a specific answer, but more of a general interest in the topic (an article about something they are interested in).

Headings, titles, and bullets help direct the readers attention. It can keep them on the page for longer than if you were to just write paragraph, upon paragraph of information. Readers also assume that information that is made distinct form other text is more important, their eyes will naturally gravitate to these sections.

  • Titles: Readers make a decision to continue to scan your document based off of a title. Articles with short titles are cited more often than those with long titles.
  • Headings: Must be concise and appear different from the rest of the text. Headings help the reader connect to an article. To be done correctly, headlines must be informative and factually accurate.
  • Bulleted Lists: Keep them short and directed. People assume bulleted information is the most important. It is also the easiest for the reader to scan.

Here’s what happens when it is done correctly:

via vox.com

Holy white space, headings, and bold lettering—that’s easy to read!

The headings tell me exactly what is going to be described in the paragraph. If I am looking for certain information I don’t have strain my eyes in order to read it. I can readily access it and that makes my eyes and brain happy.

Keep it simple, keep it safe

The phrase “too long; didn’t read” exists for a reason. People don’t want to have to go through the drudgery of reading ten paragraphs of text to come to the same conclusion that one paragraph of text can get them.

Don’t say this:

My cat did the funniest thing this morning. He was being most rambunctious in his attempts to annoy my significant other and I as we partook in our morning tooth brushing. He sat, as if transfixed, upon the toilet. Staring at us as if to say, “Pay attention to me, I’m doing something interesting.” It was only then that we realized he had fallen into the toilet! His once thick, shiny coat, was now soaked with the water from our latrine. Alas, to be a feline must be a most complex and varied experience from which I can never hope to understand.

When you can say this:

My cat fell into the toilet this morning.

If you want people to read your website, do the following:

  • Have one main idea per paragraph
  • Make it half the length of conventional writing
  • Use active voice to help you achieve concise sentences
  • Make copy scannable (headings, titles, contrast of text, line height all contribute to this)

Are there limitations for writing online? Yes.

Do they have to hinder you? No.

As long as you account for these differences you can make reading content online engaging, exciting, and easy.


People have not stopped reading, they have just started to read and take in information differently. Humans are always adapting, and that’s not scary to me, that’s thrilling. Reading leaves us with new neural pathways, it allows us to understand our environment and our past experiences in new ways.

Each of us has a deeply personal and unique relationship to what we are reading. That is truly why we must treat how we present information with such care. You have the ability to create an experience that no one else can create. That is endlessly wonderful.

The more you allow someone to lose themselves within your text, the better you can help them digest your message. It’s why you must consider how text appears to a reader on any device. Each space is thought out, there’s no proverbial stone left unturned, that is what it truly means to care for your reader.


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This post originally appeared on the crew blog

Thanks to Mikael Cho

    Andrea Ayres

    Written by

    Comics. Video games. Culture.

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