Admittedly, it was a struggle not to make the subtitle of this article “Simplifying language for increased readability”. A lot of writers will agree that complex phrases and words come naturally while writing – they make a text more sophisticated, entertaining, diverse, … a lot of good things. But there are cases when you do your readers a favor by stepping away from complexity and turning towards simpler language: when you’re writing knowledge articles. Let’s take a look at why that is and how to get there. (You’ll find throughout this article that we’re not sticking very closely to the described rules, as this article isn’t itself a knowledge article. We invite you to treat it as an exercise in spotting where to make improvements, if this were to qualify as a simplified knowledge article.)
Why?When creating knowledge articles, you are likely writing for an audience of experts. Why would that require simpler language if your readers have a high level of expertise? There are several reasons you are helping your readers by simplifying:
- Easier to understand: Even for an expert audience, simpler language can be read and understood even more easily than more complex words and phrases. Less concentration is needed for reading specific steps or an entire article, leaving more focus for the work at hand.
- Shorter: Generally, simpler terms and a more straightforward sentence structure are shorter than their more complex and elaborate counterparts. The extra word-length and word-count you save over an entire article can make a big difference. And of course shorter means faster to skim and read, saving your readers a lot of time.
- Higher consistency: If you stick to simpler language and a limited vocabulary, it makes your content more consistent. The same words will be used to refer to the same things across the entire content. This makes it easier for readers to switch between different articles and know exactly when the same topics are addressed.
- Better searchability: This consistency of terms also means that your readers can rely on search functions more, as they will deliver more matching results for a given term.
How?There are several ways you can make the language in your knowledge articles simpler. Of course there are complex topics you are writing about, which will make it hard to stick to all these suggestions. But especially when you are already forced to include some highly specialized terms, consider these tips to balance out the rest of your article:
Simpler wordsThis one seems obvious, but it can be hard to keep in mind while writing. Simpler words are faster to read and easier to understand. They also limit variety, which, as mentioned, is a good thing: You introduce fewer synonyms for the user to keep in mind and search for. A few examples in this very section could be written shorter in a knowledge article: Instead of “obvious”, use “clear”. Instead of “introduce”, use “add”. Instead of “keep in mind” use “remember”. Using simpler words can make you feel like your text is repetitive and belittling your readers’ skills of understanding. But remember that you are not writing knowledge articles for their entertainment, but for them to quickly take in specific information. They’ll be grateful for a text that is easier to read.
Controlled vocabularyEven when using simpler words, you can still end up with a variety of synonyms for the same thing. Try to limit this. With a more limited vocabulary, you get more clarity, consistency and greater searchability. For example, picture yourself describing how to close an app: Different words: You could use the word “X symbol”, “X icon”, “X button”, “x control” or simply “X” to describe what the user should click on. Controlled vocabulary: If you use a consistent approach to what you refer to as a symbol, icon or button, e.g. always using “X control” in this case, it becomes easier for your reader to search for a specific element and recognize it in a different article. You can use a style guide to help yourself and other writers always use the same terms for the same things.
Active languageGoing for more active instead of passive language is a good writing tip in a lot of areas. But it is especially helpful in knowledge articles. Using active language for instructions makes it clearer who is supposed to do what. Here’s a comparison: Passive language: “After the alert mail is sent and a call dispatched to the hotline, the system can be restarted.” Active language: “After the helpdesk team has sent the alert mail and has made the call to the hotline, you can restart the system.” In the first statement, it is unclear which steps are things the reader should do and which ones are triggers they need to wait for and that should be performed by someone else. In the second statement, the reader knows exactly who should do what.
Short sentencesAnother clear candidate for simpler language: Keep your sentences as short as possible. Longer sentences can lead to complex sentence structures, where you start making a point in the beginning and finish it in the end of a very long sentence. That can be hard to follow for your reader who is trying to find specific information quickly and is likely already dealing with a relatively complicated subject. Another advantage of shorter sentences is that you save on connecting words you would put into longer sentences, leading to a shorter text overall. Consider the difference of understandability and length in this example: Longer sentence: “It’s advisable that after entering the code 1234 and toggling the settings A and B to be active, you save.” Shorter sentence: “Enter code 1234. Set settings A and B to active. Save.” Not only does the shorter sentence safe space, it’s also easier to understand the 3 actions described in it. Especially with sequential steps, this can also help break down the instruction into smaller steps. (We’d suggest using a numbered list to make things even clearer, but that is a point for an article on structuring tips.)
Leading sentence structureWhat is a leading sentence structure? By this we mean arranging a sentence so the most important parts or the steps that come first are in the beginning of the sentence. The less important parts or steps that come last, are in the end. While this rule does not make sense for every type of sentence, it is especially useful for describing things that follow a specific condition or steps that happen in order. Two examples: Highlight conditions: If you want to inform your reader that they should do something in case of another event, you could write: “Restart the application if you get error code 123.” But putting the condition first makes it easier for the reader to know when this applies – so instead, write: “If you get error code 123, restart the application.” Clarify sequences: When describing some sequential steps, you are not wrong to write: “Before submitting the form (by clicking the ‘done’ button), be sure to tick the ‘save for later’ box at the bottom of the pop-up.” But it will help the reader to orient themselves while they follow the instruction if you instead write: “At the bottom of the pop-up, tick the box ‘save for later’. Then click the ‘done’ button to submit the form.” This way you start at the biggest orientation help (“at the bottom of the page”) and the first step (“tick the box ‘save for later’”), giving the reader a good idea where to start, both visually and in order of steps. Paying attention to this rule will help your readers know the most important part right away, allowing them to follow the sentence more easily or letting them know immediately that the condition the sentence starts with might not apply to them.
How simple is simple enough?Trying to stick to these points already means you’re doing a lot to help your readers consume your content faster. But if you are curious just how readable your content is, there are several ways to measure this.
- Web tools for copy-pasting and evaluating your texts: There are plenty of websites that allow you to copy-paste the text you want evaluated and then see how it performs against different measures of readability. This is a great way to help get a gauge of how readable your typical articles are or how certain changes affect them. (For example, the free options from readable and WebFX are a good starting point.)
- Customized analytics: If you want to frequently measure the readability of content, perhaps not only yours but bigger amounts from a knowledge base, setting up your own analytics measurement might be the way to go. You can tweak it to the conditions of your content, accounting for necessary specialist vocabulary and have it scan your content automatically at publishing or in big batches. Of course, this requires a bit of expertise – ideally in general programming as well as text processing and natural language processing areas. If you are curious to learn more, stay tuned for our article on content analytics, coming soon.