As a technical writer creating tutorials and courses for users of all levels, I’m constantly re-evaluating my content, looking for ways to make it more accessible and easy to understand. I had one such oportunity yesterday, when I attended the workshop Improve Your Writing Using Accessible Language, held by Amy Dickens and organized by You Got This. In this post, I’ll share with you my learnings from the workshop, combining the speaker’s slides with my personal notes.

Table of contents What is accessible language?
Why do we need accessible language?
How to write in accessible language?

What is accessible language?

Accessible language is a way of writing that makes is easy for the reader to process the text and understand the message. Though this might sound like the expected or natural way to communicate, sometimes we even consciously choose to use inaccessible (complex) language, for different reasons:

  • it’s what we’re taught in school: Using complex language is a sign of higher education. Think of the term papers and dissertations you had to write as a student, the legislations written in legalese, and reasearch papers written in academese––it takes at least two passes to get through these texts.

  • we want to sound intelligent: A rich vocabulary sprinkled with Latin maxims is one (annoying) way to show off you’re well-read, but in most cases this technique only complicates the intended message.

  • we’re talking to a technical audience: Each profession has its own jargon, a set of industry-specific words and expressions that members use to signal their domain knowledge and belonging to the group.

Complex language makes it hard for the reader to process the text or understand the message. Inaccessible language creates frustration for both the reader, who can’t get the information she needs, and for the writer, who can’t get his point across. Why should you care about this?

Why do we need accessible language?

As a writer, you must always keep in mind that you’re writing for people (not for a search algorithm, not for a machine). Of these people, many possibly have an (in)visible disability that affects the way the consume your content. For example, people with visual impairments might not be able to read small fonts, those with dyslexia would find it hard to read serif fonts, and those with autism spectrum disorders might not get your irony or metaphors.

Accessible language puts the readers’ needs first, helping them understand the message the first time they read it. Content written in accessible language appeals to a wider audience and improves international readability.

How to write in accessible language

Amy Dickens proposed five practical ways of making writing more accessible:

  1. Use short and concise sentences: Stick to one idea (per sentence) helps the reader focus on the main message. If you need to convey several pieces of information in one go, break down the sentences visibly, by using commas or lists. Also, remove any unnecessary words (usually adverbs) and keep your sentences at an average length of 15-20 words (for print) or 7-10 words (for web).

  2. Say exactly what you mean: To make your message clear, use a basic vocabulary. If you’re writing for the general public, it’s best to avoid jargon, but if that’s unavoidable, explain a term the first time you use it. Moreover, avoid similes, metaphors, or idioms, as these can be difficult to understand for people who have a mainly literal comprehension of language or who have a different first language.

  3. Use active voice: Sentences in active voice are usually shorter and quicker to read than those in passive voice. Two ways to “activate” your sentences are avoiding nominalizations (e.g. Submit an application for a loan.Apply for a loan.) and following the language-specific basic word order (subject-verb-object in English).

  4. Arrange your writing clearly: Create a visible structure of your text by using headings, subheadings, lists, and if necessary a table of contents. This way, the reader should be able to get the gist of the text by a quick scan.

  5. Test your content: Once you’ve finished writing your piece, run it through a readability test like the Gunning fog index, Flesch Reading Ease Scale, or SMOG grade to check how understandable it is for your target audience. Some of these tests are integrated in online writing tools like Grammarly and ghostwriter.

Next, Amy Dickens suggested some concrete writing tips specific to four channels:

  • Social media: Use proper punctuation, avoid replacing words with emojis (not only can they be tricky to decifer, but they can have different meanings across languages/cultures), and use capitalizations (also in hasthags, e.g. #yougotthis#YouGotThis)

  • Email: Keep the subject line concise, avoid excessive words, and use lists and text formatting to highlight information or action items.

  • Web content: Apart from the above-mentioned visible structure, use contextual links and left-aligned text (justified creates gaps in text, which affects the reading experience).