WBR: Improving Readability with Churchill, Hemingway, & Zombies
In this WBR post, we're going to dig into readability. We've already discussed what readability is and why it matters. We've looked at samples of a report summary written at 3 different reading levels.
Now let's talk actual strategies for improving the readability of our reports.
With help from zombies. And Ernest Hemingway. And of course, Winston Churchill, pictured at right, urging you to reconsider using the word "consequently" in your summary.
Almost 80 years ago, Churchill had some thoughts about your reports.
Well, not your reports, exactly. But he thought reports in general were too long, too full of jargon, and too hard to read. Sound familiar?
Here's the text of a memo he wrote to the War Cabinet in 1940, complaining about long reports and demanding something better:
Churchill's memo is a call to action. We're not writing reports for the War Cabinet, but the end result of our long, woolly reports is the same. It wastes our time. And parents must spend precious energy looking for the essential points. Let Churchill's memo inspire you. Let's draw on it as a guide to improving the user-friendliness of our reports.
Keep in mind his caveat: At first, reports that are more readable will seem rough. We're used to length. We're used to jargon. It looks "right." Reports that are shorter and clearer risk seeming informal or simplistic.
But also keep in mind his promises. If we write truly readable reports, we'll save time. We'll think more clearly. Most importantly, we'll provide a better service to the families we see. Because a report parents can't read is arguably worse than no report at all.
So let's get started. Note: I'm not going to talk at all about the content of your report in this post. This post is all about style. This post is about how to say what you want to say in a way people can more easily read.
Here are 10 tips for writing more readable reports:
Tip #1: Use Plain English
The Plain English Campaign ("Fighting for crystal clear English since 1979") is a UK-based group that advocates using plain English in important documents. They list the advantages of plain English as:
It is faster to write
It is faster to read; and
You get your message across more often, more easily, and in a friendlier way.
They also point out that:
If you spend more than an hour a day writing, you are (to an extent) a professional writer. So it's vital that you get it right!
The Plain English Campaign has a lot of great info on their website how to write in plain English. I've been soaking in their guidelines. I found many of the suggestions below (and the Brevity memo above) on their website. You'll find many of similar guidelines in other sources, but the Plain English Campaign lays them out in easy-to-read and easy-to-refer-back to posts.
Here are some of my favorites:
While I recommend reading the whole site, Plain English's primary advice boils down to 3 words: Use Understandable Words. You already know that means "don't use jargon," so I'm not going to bother repeating that piece of advice. (Besides, sometimes a good report needs to use and define a specific term so parents will understand it.)
Instead, I'm going to talk about those sneaky readability killers: multisyllabic words. Words with more than one syllable are harder to read than one syllable words. "Reported, informed, discussed, concluded, and stated" are all harder to read than "said." The more lengthy words you have in a report, the harder people will struggle to read it. Especially if you stack many long words in a single sentence.
The Flesch Reading Ease includes syllables per word as one of two elements of readability. Here's the formula:
Flesch Reading Ease = 206.835 – (1.015 x Average Sentence Length) – (84.6 x Average Syllables Per Word)
Looking at that math, it's clear that longer words means lower reading ease. Lower reading ease means parents, teachers, therapists, etc will have a hard time reading your report. Reports that are hard to read are hard to use.
Of course, some long words are unavoidable. If a child has a memory problem, it's going to be hard to write a report without using words like 'memory', 'remember', and 'recall.' But a lot words in our reports are long for no good reason. We were just taught to write like that.
Plain English has a list of "hundreds of plain English alternatives to the pompous words and phrases that litter official writing." They note: "There’s more to [writing in plain English] than just replacing ‘hard’ words with ‘easy’ words, and many of these alternatives won’t work in every situation. But it will help if you want to get rid of words like ‘notwithstanding’, ‘expeditiously’ and phrases like ‘in the majority of instances’ and ‘ at this moment in time’. "
To their list, I would add the following:
Go ahead and use 'said' There's no reason we always have to use 'reported' or 'stated.' "Jill's parents said she has trouble focusing" is okay. As a colleague asked me recently, "Why was I so afraid of the word 'said'?" 'Said' is a short, readable, easily understood word that readers see so often we almost don't notice it. Take advantage of that ease to make your reports instantly more readable. The "go ahead and use 'said'" rule applies any time you're using a long verb when a short one will do. Why use "demonstrates, indicates, presents as, ambulates, and utilizes" when you can saw "shows, tells, is, walks, and uses?"
Use the present tense When you're writing test results, try using the present tense. On internship, I learned to write "Bob presented as exceptionally articulate. His expressive vocabulary score fell within the superior range." Presented? And for goodness' sake... fell? (Perhaps like me, you see that so often it no longer registers just how odd that word choice is!) Just putting those sentences in the present tense will help your readability. Presented is 3 syllables; presents is 2. This exercise will also make it easier to see how you can make your sentences simpler because you'll be thinking about your verb choice. "Bob is very articulate. His vocabulary is well above average."
Delete any transitional words that are uncommon or longer than 2 syllables Want to instantly improve your report readability? Get rid of those transitional phrases. Those are the words or phrase at the beginning of a sentence, before the first comma. Churchill already urged you not to use "consequently" (I recently read a report that used this word 7 times in the summary and recs!). Many of these words are also on the A-Z list linked above. Here are some examples of transitional words you don't need:
Often you don't need those words at all. If you spot one, try deleting it first. If that doesn't work, re-write the sentence. If you must have a transitional word, here are some simpler ones you can try: so, also, first/second/third, now, but, because, then, when, if, as, though, while, or Here are some that are okay to use occasionally because they are so common most readers can read them with relative ease: however, therefore, usually, although, instead
Resist the temptation to use synonyms There are some words and phrases we write so often we get bored of them. We try to liven up our writing with synonyms. Usually long synonyms! Joe struggles with, has challenges with, has difficulties with, presents with vulnerabilities in, shows deficits in, has discrepancies in, encounters barriers to, and experiences obstacles to paying attention, doesn't he? Stop it. These words do not liven up a report. If you need to be lively, pick strong and exciting verbs - Joe tackles tasks with zest. Instead, pick one or two easy to read phrases and stick with them. For example, here are easier to read options: Joe has problems, has a hard time with, finds it hard to, or has trouble paying attention. The brain does not notice easy words and in most cases it doesn't sound repetitive. For example, I've used the word "hard" a dozen times in this post already. Most likely, you haven't noticed. Even if you have noticed, remember: repetition helps weaker readers. Repetition also helps reinforce concepts.
Avoid nominalizations This is when you turn a useful verb into a fusty and bloated noun or noun phrase. In almost every case, the nominal form is longer, duller, and harder to read. Here are some examples: Challenges --> has challenges with Discusses --> has a discussion about Uses --> utilization Refers --> makes reference to Completes --> completion Arranges --> makes an arrangement Whenever possible, avoid the nominal form. Use the verb form instead. "We discussed the results" instead of "We had a discussion about the results."
Above all, let's remember these words of philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer, and possibly consider getting a tattoo of them:
Of course, he also said "Life swings like a pendulum backward and forward between boredom and pain" so he was a pretty happy dude.
Tip #2: Check Your Sentence Length
Longer sentences are harder to read. Most guidelines suggest an average sentence length of no more than 15 to 20 words per sentence. Churchill's full memo has an average sentence length of 17.1 words - right in that sweet spot. Charles Dickens' A Tale of Two Cities has 17.7 words per sentence. Beyond 20 words per sentence, writing is very hard for most Americans to read.
The Flesch Reading Ease formula uses sentence length as the other element of readability. Remember:
Flesch Reading Ease = 206.835 – (1.015 x Average Sentence Length) – (84.6 x Average Syllables Per Word)
This means longer sentences lower your reading ease. The easiest way to calculate your Average Sentence Length is to use Microsoft Word's Readability Statistics.(If you don't use MS Word, stay tuned because there's an app you can use). If you don't already have Word set up so you can get Readability Stats, here is a quick post with the instructions and a picture of a judgmental harbor seal.
Child evaluation reports are notorious for long sentences. For example, there are several example report summaries in the book Neuropsychological Report Writing. These are reports many of us use as examples for ourselves or our students. Every single one of those summaries has an average sentence length of 20.5 words or more. The wordier summaries have an average of 26 or more words per sentence. Those are some long sentences!
Check out a couple of your report summaries and see how you compare. Don't worry, no one's looking. This is just for your own information.
Here are a few more comparisons. For the 3 versions of our "Jane Doe" summary:
Original summary (Grade level= 13): Average sentence length is 19.8 words.
Revised summary (Grade level = 8): Average sentence length is 13.0 words.
Simplified summary (Grade level = 5): Average sentence length is 10.1 words.
Tip #3: Now Shorten Your Sentences
How's your average sentence length? If you're like most readers of this post, it's over 20 words per sentence. Congratulations - that means most of your reports are unreadable. It also means there are easy things you can do right now to make your reports more reader-friendly.
We've already talked 3 things that will instantly shorten your sentences:
Use normal words
Cut out transitional phrases
Use verbs instead of nominalizations
Here are some more tips for shortening your sentences:
Break long sentences into two sentences Each sentence should convey one idea. Or at most, one idea and one supporting point. If your sentence has more than one idea, break it into two sentences. Each sentence should also only have one to three examples or elements of a list. If you have more than three, break it up. Or consider using a list of bullet points. If you need a semi-colon, your sentence is too long. If you think you need parentheses or an em dash, maybe what you really need is a second sentence.
Take out extra words I'm particularly guilty of using two sets of verbs in a row. "This allows us to ensure" instead of "this ensures." "If you feel you must" instead of "if you must." "He can compare and contrast ideas" instead of "he can consider ideas." Or even "therapy will help to teach him to learn how to cope" instead of "I suggest therapy for coping skills." Unnecessary adverbs are also easy targets. When writing "it is _______ important," does "especially, critically, crucially, incredibly, or particularly" need to go in that blank? Multiword adjective and adverb phrases are even easier to eliminate or shorten. "Each and every" can become "each." "At the current moment in time" can become "currently" or better yet "right now." In many cases it's also acceptable to remove 'that' before dependent clauses. "These results show that he has trouble focusing" can become "these results show he has trouble focusing."
Be punchy The Plain English Campaign uses this phrase to remind you to vary your sentence length. Take risks. Follow a long sentence with a shorter one for variety or emphasis. Imagine the power of ending a paragraph with a simple three word statement like "She needs therapy." It's clear, direct, and urgent. The "be punchy" rule also reminds you it's okay to use imperatives. Imperatives are commands to the reader, like “do this” or “go home.” The sentence “Take risks” in the paragraph above is an imperative. Imperatives are often the simplest and most direct way to say something. They also add emphasis. You might already use imperatives in your recommendations. “Provide extra time for tests” or “Use worksheets with extra white space.” Try sprinkling imperatives into your summary whenever you are making a recommendation or want the reader to pay attention to something. Readers are more likely to see and follow advice expressed as an imperative.
Tip #4: Use Short Paragraphs
Have you ever read a report where the paragraphs are so long they cover an entire page? Or where the summary is just one endless paragraph? Most readers read more easily if there are multiple short paragraphs with ample white space in between. Paragraphs that are too long fatigue the eye and the mind.
As a general rule, keep paragraphs to 5 sentences. After that, break it up into two paragraphs. If you can’t find a natural place to break the paragraph, try just hitting “return” after 5 sentences. Readers these days are used to short blog posts where paragraphs are one to three sentences. They will follow you to the next paragraph without losing the train of thought. You’ll just be giving them a little space to breathe.
Tip #5: Use the Active Voice
If you look at your Readability Stats, you will notice a statistic for how often you use the “passive voice.” Whenever possible, use the active voice rather than the passive voice. For those of us who can’t remember our last grammar class, following this tip may require a refresher on the active voice versus the passive voice.
Remember how verbs are the actions of a sentence? When it’s clear who is doing the action, that’s the active voice. “She spoke”, “He steals the car”, and “I did eat the candy” are all active. You know exactly who was speaking, who stole the car, and who ate the candy.
The passive voice is when you leave out the person or thing doing the action. “It was spoken”, “The car is being stolen”, and “The candy has been eaten” are all passive. You can’t tell who was speaking, who stole the car, or who ate the candy.
The passive voice is awful because it is hard to read. It’s especially hard for struggling readers, people with a language disorder, and English-language learners, for complex grammar reasons we don’t have to go into. Just try saying “the candy has been eaten” in whatever foreign language you learned in high school.
The passive voice is also awful because it’s convoluted, potentially confusing, and almost always adds to a sentence’s length. Passive writing is also dull and uninspired. Active writing is dynamic writing. Try to use the active voice in 80-90% of your sentences.
Having trouble finding the passive voice? Try the Zombies Test: If you can add the phrase by zombies after the main verb, the sentence is in the passive voice.
It was spoken by zombies.
The car is being stolen by zombies.
The candy has been eaten by zombies.
Those zombified sentences all make sense because they are all in the passive voice. “I did eat the candy by zombies” doesn’t make sense, because the original sentence is in the active voice.
Want to try it yourself? Try the Passive Voice Detector. Click on the Biohazard Symbol to add the zombies to your sentences.
As horrible as it is, there are times you might want to use the passive voice. If you want to sound less hostile or direct, you might use the passive voice. “She was suspended from school” might be nicer than saying “Her school suspended her.” You might also not know who the actor is, in which case the passive voice is your only sensible option. “He was hit in the eye” might be easier than “Someone or something hit him in the eye.” Or, the actor might be an inanimate object that would sound strange as the subject of a sentence. “The child was thrown from the car” may be better than “The car threw the child.” You can also use the passive voice if you are Winston Churchill.
Tip #6: Imagine You Are Talking to Your Reader
An easy way to prompt yourself to use normal words is to imagine you are talking directly to the person reading your report. The goal of clear writing is to find the right words for the situation. As the Plain English Campaign says,
When you are talking to your reader, say exactly what you mean, using the simplest words that fit. This does not necessarily mean only using simple words − just words that the reader will understand.
You already do this when you talk. You naturally modify your language to fit your audience. You explain evaluation results differently when you’re talking to a child, a parent, or a teacher. And you talk about test results differently to a referring provider, a trainee, or a colleague. When you do this, you are using words your audience understands. You’re finding the simplest words that fit.
Long writing happens when you use the wrong set of words for your audience. For example, when you try to sound formal and official when you’re writing a report for a parent - a parent who instead needs parent-friendly words. You end up using jargon, official-ese, and big words. You end up explaining jargon, adding too many examples, and repeating yourself in different words. My best hint I’m using the wrong set of words is when I write the dreaded phrase “In other words” (which I write far too often). If I need other words, that’s a good clue my first set of words was wrong. That’s when I try to back up and think, “What would I say to that person if they were sitting in my office?”
The rule to talk directly to your audience is also a reminder that it's okay to refer to the reader as "you" if you need or want to. You can also use "I", "we", and "us." For some reason, most of us avoid saying these simple words. Yet this is almost always the most direct and engaging way say what we need to say. For example, notice the immediacy of "I am worried about her mood." Using this conversational style also adds a personal touch. You may end up surprised how much more parent-friendly it makes your reports.
Tip #7: Sound Positive
This is another tip that has two meanings. First, sound upbeat. Optimistic writing is usually shorter writing. When you are talking about something negative, the natural tendency is to add extra words to soften your message. Compare “he can focus on tasks that interest him” to “he sometimes has difficulties paying attention to things he may find less interesting.” If a section of your report is dragging on, try re-writing it from a more positive point of view. Who knew being strengths-based in your evaluations could lead to shorter reports?
Second, sound sure of yourself. Don’t hedge. Or at least, cut out some of the equivocating. I have written the sentence “I think this could indicate the possibility of some anxiety.” Instead, why not “I think he is anxious” or “He might be anxious” or “It is possible he is anxious.” Or better yet, if I have the data, I could just say “He worries a lot.” Whenever you can, be bold. State what you know and if you need to back it up, state why you know it. If you are not used to writing this way, it will feel weird at first, and your imposter syndrome or other anxieties may kick in hard. But, your reports will be so much clearer and your readers will thank you.
Tip #8: Formatting Is Your Friend
Good formatting can make any summary easier to read. Even one that’s 26 words per sentence. If you want to improve the readability of your reports without changing a single word, look at your design.
You should not take advice from me about design elements. My reports are graphic disasters, full of too small font, too little white space, and too much capitalization. So here are the recommendations from the entire rest of the entire internet for clear formatting:
Only use one font in your document and consider a sans serif font.
Use a large enough font (12 point is ideal, 10 point is the bare minimum).
Consider using left-aligned text instead of justified text.
Use bold for emphasis.
Don’t underline - it's distracting and hard to read.
Don’t use italics or BLOCK CAPITALS – they’re also hard to read.
Do use bullet points and numbered lists.
Do use headings – ideally in bold and sentence case (first word capitalized only).
Do use lots of white space. Make sure your margins and line spaces between paragraphs are big enough.
Consider design elements that add emphasis, like a pull quote.
If you use pictures or graphs, make sure they add meaning and aren’t confusing, irrelevant, or too distracting.
The great news here is that these tips are so easy. You don't have to re-write. You can make your reports more reader-friendly by adding a few headings, hitting return a few times, and making different font choices. I use headings like Jim's Strengths or Academic Results. Occasionally I use a question form if the parents had very specific referral questions that guided the evaluation, like How Can We Best Support Jill?
Tip #9: Use Technology to Help
Editing your own work is hard. Why not use technology to help you find things to improve? You can use Microsoft Word to find the passive voice, along with a host of other grammatical foibles. Remember that post on how to set MS Word to show you Readability Stats in 8 easy steps? Steps 9-12 in that post cover how to get MS Word to point out your grammatical errors.
There are also apps available that do the work for you – Grammarly is one. But my favorite is the Hemingway App. This app uses AI to make your writing "bold and clear" and Hemingway-esque. Here's a screen shot of the app and a pic of Papa:
Dear Diary: One day everyone will be able to write like me.
I have no connection to this app. I just think it’s is amazing. Go there right now and put in the text of anything you’ve written. You’ll immediately see color-coding showing your hard to read and very hard to read sentences. Other colors show your uses of the passive voice, your overly complex phrases, and your weak adverbs. Data on the side will show the grade level of your writing. You can also click “Show More” and see reading time and number of words, sentences, and paragraphs.
You can edit right in the app. The online version of the app is free. If you want to be able to use the app off-line, integrate it with other programs like MS Word, or use it without first de-identifying your work, there’s an inexpensive paid version.
Tip #10: Practice, Practice, Practice
My last tip is to practice. Play around with writing shorter reports whenever you can. Try writing your next report summary a grade level below your last one. Find an old summary and cut the words per sentence by 5. Take a de-identified summary, a red pen, and an open mind to your next peer consult group. Ask me for a strengths-based one hour report review. Take a referral source to coffee and ask them to review readability with you. And share in the comments section below your tips for what’s worked for you for writing shorter reports.
Let's start a readability revolution. With zombies.
Note: The reading level of this post is 5th grade. There are 367 sentences in this post (11.4 words per sentence). 34 of the sentences are hard to read. 11 are very hard to read. There are 9 uses of the passive voice.