Write Like It’s 2016, not 1996

Where were you in 1996? I was in the picturesque town of  Davidson, North Carolina, typing away. As a senior in college, I interned at a small sports marketing firm. We produced the College Soccer Weekly website that was later bought by soccer.com. This was my first "office" job - until then I had mostly just coached soccer.

 Logo for College Soccer Weekly, the website I wrote for in 1996

My main task was to develop website content. I conducted interviews with college soccer stars who were on the US National Teams. I interviewed legendary coaches who won often.  I wrote game notes before big contests and summaries afterwards. We had 1 million "hits" per month during the busy season of Fall soccer. And that was exciting!

ONLINE WRITING IN 1996

But bless the dear soccer fans who visited our website. I often broke the rules we now know about writing for the web. Here’s an example from the article about game between top teams Notre Dame and University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill:

"After equally good chances at both ends and some fine goalkeeping by Notre Dame's LaKeysia Beene and Carolina's Siri Mullinix, newcomer Anne Makinen of the Irish grabbed the attention 22 minutes into the game. A foul by Carolina 25 yards out gave the Irish a free kick which center midfielder Makinen perfectly placed into the lower left corner of the goal, avoiding the wall of Carolina players." 

I ran this passage through a free online resource, the Hemingway Editor app. It examines your text and lets you know how readable it is. Check out the result:

 Screenshot of my sentences run through the Hemingway Editor app online. These sentences are at Grade 18 reading level and difficult to read.

Yikes! These are "very hard to read" sentences at a reading level of Grade 18! The recommended grade level for writing on the web for a U.S. audience is generally 8th grade. (Even first year college students often read at this level.) 

We’ve learned so much about how people read on the web in the last 20 years. But has that actually changed our writing? Looking at many websites out there, the answer is "no." 

Online Writing in 2016

In July I realized this problem with online writing was bigger than I thought. I read this article on "The Impact of Smart Analytics on Commerce" on a blog of tech giant IBM. Now certainly IBM has a batch of user experience professionals, marketers, and other employees who must understand how people read online. Right? Right?! So why can't someone edit the posts on the IBM Commerce Blog? 

Look at the mess when I run this article though the Hemingway Editor:

 View of the IBM article text put through the Hemingway Editor. Most sentences are highlighted in red because they are considered "very hard to read"

The article's reading level is at Grade 18. There are 12 "very hard to read" sentences. This looks pretty darn similar to how I wrote in 1996.

Don't think I just cherry picked this article. I looked at a sample of 7 of them from the IBM blog. Here's that list along with the number of "very hard to read" sentences and the grade level of the writing.

Even highly educated IBM customers can experience cognitive overload when reading online. And our eyes get tired. We get distracted. We get lost in a long compound-complex sentence. Make it easier for everybody to read! IBM just needs one extra hour to change its articles for how people read online. Shorten sentences, find alternatives to complex words, break up lists of items. Kill the sentences that sound like a PhD student. 

If you write online, you must know how people read online. Otherwise it’s like being a fashion designer without a sense of how the human body moves. You wouldn't do silly stuff like design pants that people can’t walk in. Don't write articles that are hard to read either. Nobody ever says, "Jeez, that was too easy to understand!"

So...what should we do? 

Do at least one of of the following ASAP:

  1. Use Hemingway Editor and run all of your website text through it. There’s a free version. It’s awesome. The Internet could be a better place for all readers if we all used it. 
  2. Read Chapter 5 from Steve Krug’s Book “Don’t Make Me Think.”
  3. Read Letting Go of the Words by Ginny Redish. You can snag a few sample chapters at Ginny’s website. 
  4. Have beta-readers who represent your target audience read your copy. Learn what confused them and which sentences they have to re-read to understand.

Join me in writing at least for 2016, if not for the future...