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  • Writer's picturePhil Parker

Readability, SEO and your writing

I write marketing copy for an online learning company. It's a competitive sector and getting messages to potential customers requires targetted use of language and style. In this respect it's no different to lots of other commercial corners of the internet. The consequence? You need to get your message across effectively, engage audiences and identify outcomes and impact.

As a writer, that discipline is very useful! That's why I thought I'd share it with you. Lots of self-published authors maintain their own sites, this will help in this context too.

What is SEO again?

You've seen it mentioned but might not know much about it. It stands for Search Engine Optimisation. Google, along with other search engines, run algorithms which read your site. They analyse its content in order to tell others what's there. In the last five years, their algorithms have increased in their sophistication. I'm not going into that here (too much, too irrelevant) but this concept informs the points I make below. If you're a WordPress user, you may be familiar with Yoast. It contains this information too.

The importance of readability

As writers we need our audiences to understand what they read. They need to engage with it too. However, one thing writers must also consider is where to pitch the readability of their work. How accessible is it to readers? It's worth checking via the Flesch Readability Test.

Levels of readability in the Flesch readability test

As this diagram shows, the language is analysed via a formula which leads to the score. Professional websites aim for a readability of 60-70; content 13-15 year olds can read.

You can upload a section of your writing to find out its readability here.

Question: do you want your material to exceed that level? If you're an author of literary fiction the answer is definitely YES! But otherwise? Are you likely to discourage potential audiences because your writing is too complex? Too "flowery"? Too "abstract"? (I've seen these words used recently in reviews!) And there is also the inevitable point to debate here: are we "dumbing down" by doing this? Perhaps.

Two forms of narrative storytelling

Keep an Active Voice

I've written elsewhere about the importance of sustaining an active voice in writing. Let's deal with the definitions. The active voice requires an action to be performed by the subject of the sentence. For example: John writes science fiction novels. (John is the subject, the action or verb, 'writes'.) The passive voice stops the subject from being active, instead, it is acted upon by the verb to become passive. (John has written science fiction novels). In simple terms, placing verbs like 'to have' and 'to be' into the sentences renders it passive.

Passive voice robs the writing of energy and drive. Over time it does the same thing to the reader. It loses urgency and tension. Writing should aim to use Active Voice primarily so it remains fresh, lively, energetic.

Maintaining ease of understanding

How often do you read something and need to go back and read it again? It's the result of complex writing. Too much has been crammed into a sentence or paragraph. Readers can only take in so much, overload their brains and confusion results. There are SEO rules to consider here.

  1. Sentences should contain no more than 20 words. Not always obviously! But predominantly. Varying sentence structure is important, it achieves pace. But it's a useful rule to keep in mind when editing. Are too many sentences well over that limit?

  2. Paragraphs should contain no more than 200 words. Going well beyond that limit suggests there is too much crammed into what's happening. Split it into more paragraphs or ask if all those words are essential. If you don't, your editor will!

  3. Use transition words to connect your sentences for complex concepts. Sometimes you need to explain something beyond that 20 word limit. Start a new sentence with a transition word so the reader recognises the continuation of the previous statement. Transitions such as: in addition, similarly, however, in other words, above all.

  4. Paragraphs need a core sentence. It helps the reader if the opening sentence highlights the content of the paragraph as a whole. If you're a skim reader, that's how you work! It helps the reader (perhaps sub-consciously) understand what's happening.

  5. Short chapters help readers absorb the story. Whether we like it or not, we are a society where "bite-size" chunks of information are what we encounter every day. In the news, magazines, websites. We're conditioned to understand that way. Lengthy chapters can defeat some audiences, there's too much to take in. Splitting up a chapter into sections is a way around this. Sections help understanding. Plus, some readers prefer short chapters so they can 'dip in and out' of the book when opportunities allow.

In conclusion

If you look at the way I've organised this post, these rules apply. Hopefully you absorbed the information relatively easily. But this is a blog post and not a book. I get that. My point is to remember these things when editing. As a writer you can defend that lengthy description of the table filled with food. Its importance is crucial. As an editor your job is to analyse it and ask yourself these things.

  • Are sentences too complex because I'm trying to cram too much into them?

  • Are paragraphs covering too many issues?

  • Is the tension over the dinner table robbed by the use of passive voice?

  • Has that chapter addressed too many events?

  • How readable is the language? Am I overcomplicating it and so losing my readers?

Example of lengthy, complex sentence structure in Victorian literature

I want to finish by making this point. And yes, I am repeating myself deliberately. Much of what we read these days is written with these rules in mind. We are conditioned to expect it. You might not like it. But look at Victorian literature. (See the example of Henry James here) Sentences rambled, language was complex and flowery because it allowed writers to show off their education. It was what society expected. Our 'conditions of acceptance' change over time, as does language. Imagine opening your book with these two sentences! How to put off the reader eh?

Writing is a fluid thing. A lot of readers may have limited attention spans, look at how TV recognises this fact. It's important to understand your audience. Know what they like, what they expect. Not just from you but more generally. I think you'll find simplicity, readability and ease of understanding is crucial.


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