Readability can be the difference between a sale and losing someone to your competitors.

No, really.

Have you ever put a book down because you couldn’t connect with the writing style?

Or closed a tab because the writing style of a company’s blog was making your eyes close?

Maybe you weren’t sure why, but you just didn’t like it?

The same thing could happen to your potential customers.

So what do you do?

We all think we know what readability is, and how to write for it.

But when it comes to putting that advice into practice, how many of us choose what’s easier for us to write over what’s easier for people to read?

How many of us take advantage of short—sometimes uncomfortably short—paragraphs and sentences?

How many of us break the rules of grammar so that something looks better on a mobile screen?

How many of us write in a way that’s conversational and memorable over corporate and formal?

How many of us ignore our English teacher’s everlasting voice in our head telling us not to do this or that?

Yeah, not as many people as you might thing think. 

Most people, in fact, write in a very similar way and find it hard to break free from that style. They have long sentences and paragraphs that are full of complicated words and that over explain or oversell their point. If you look at this paragraph on a mobile device, it’s already starting to look long, isn’t it? It looks disproportionate compared to the rest of the post, too. Our eyes—and brains—get tired easily when we read on a computer or a mobile device. Readability is therefore crucial.

You want to keep your reader’s eyes—and scrolling fingers—moving all the time. This keeps them awake and, hopefully, engaged.

Here are some other ways you can improve your content’s readability:

Split things up with bullet points

I love a good bullet point. They’re a great way to summarise key points at the end of a section, or even at the end of your post.

If you’re giving examples of something, a bunch of bullet points are a helpful way to make those examples stand out, too (like later in this post).

Break up text with images

If long text is written in a fun way, it’s not so tedious to read.

But it never hurts to add in some images to break things up.

So long as the image is relevant. Don’t add an image in for the sake of adding an image.

Millie the west posing with The Ghost's Call book
See? Totally not relevant. But cute. And I got a book plug in. You can grab The Ghost’s Call right here.

Use subheadings that summarise your key points

Most people won’t read all of your post (sorry).

Using subheadings that summarise your key points ensures that your reader can skip the areas they feel are irrelevant to them or that they already know. They then have more brain power and/or energy to read and process the sections that are relevant to them.

Embrace high contrast

This is more of a graphic design thing, but it’s important to consider when putting text on to an image. Photoshop has settings to help with this, but I don’t think Canva does.

When you put any text on an image, the text should contrast as much as possible. The more it stands out, the more readable it is. This is helpful for people who are colourblind, have dyslexia, are neurodivergent, or even just feel a bit tired.

For example, white text on a yellow background is hard on the eyes and may require squinting or screen adjustments to read.

If someone has their device on a low darkness setting, they may not be able to read the image at all. (I’m that person. I hate bright screens.)

Dark grey or black text on a lighter background is much quicker for our brains to process. Sometimes black can be too harsh, in which case a dark grey works instead.

I’m by no means an expert in this—I’m not a graphic designer, I just dabble sometimes—but as I have a couple of friends and relatives who are colourblind or dyslexic, I know how much of a difference this contrast can make.

Consider your language

I’m not just talking about writing how your prospects speak—although if you’re not doing that already, you should be—I mean putting real thought into how you use language.

The way that I’d write about something is different to how my partner would write about something, or my relatives.

It’s even different to how my podcast co-host writes. This is a good thing, because it means we all have unique voices that make our writing stand out.

Everything from our generation, to our friends, to our upbringing, and of course, schooling, affects our spoken and written voices.

In most cases, how we write and speak are different. But they don’t have to be! It really depends on you.

We all have our own ways of communicating, which is why it’s important you know how your target audience speaks.

Some things to ask yourself:

  • Are there are words or phrases unique to your target audience?
  • Are there any words or phrases they definitely wouldn’t use?
  • Where can you find the latest examples of how they communicate?
  • How accessible is any industry jargon? Could it be understood by someone from outside of your industry?
  • Is your knowledge out of date? This is particularly relevant if your target audience is children or teenagers, since what they like/dislike say/don’t say is constantly changing.

Use good grammar…to an extent

A lot of what we’re taught in an academic setting about grammar isn’t all that readable. It’s also not how people talk, despite the fact that writing how people talk is about as readable as you can get.

You don’t have to stick to rigid rules about not starting sentences with ‘and’ or avoiding semi-colons. Break up a sentence however you want!

In fact, the shorter a sentence is, the better.

It’s not just about structure, though (we’ll get to that in a minute).

It’s about remembering that the type of punctuation you use affects how someone reads a sentence.

Every pause, every mark, should be carefully considered. It should flow like a river, guiding the reader in whatever direction you want them to take.

You’re the river, in control of where the banks are and what direction the tide takes. Your reader is swimming along, their direction dictated by the path you’ve laid out for them.

Your writing is a river and should guide your reader in the direction you want them to go in.

Great writing of all kinds is poetry.

Unfortunately, most corporate blogs definitely don’t fall into this category. If it did, some of them would be much nicer to read.

(And when I say poetry, I mean the accessible, fun , possibly spoken word kind, not the stuff you studied doing your GCSEs that’s about as accessible as the top of Mount Everest.)

It’s up to you if you choose to use semi-colons or colons (I will forever hold on to them), put little asides in brackets, or use more full stops. There are lots of ways to break up a sentence or paragraph.

You may have to experiment to find a style that works for you, but that’s ok. No one is marking your work! And they’re definitely not going to tell you off for starting sentences with a conjunction or using an Oxford comma.

Listen to the Oxford comma memes

Growing up, I had a friend who took one of our English lessons to heart: never put a comma before ‘and’.

I ignored this advice and started doing it anyway in places where I believed it helped with the flow of a sentence.

I let my characters and setting dictate how the sentence should flow rather than strict rules. Yes, even as a tween, I was a rebel.

But that meant whenever that friend read my work, she focused on my use of Oxford commas, instead of, you know, if the content was actually any good.

Whether you like the Oxford comma (sometimes called the serial comma) or not, it does aid in readability. Especially in longer lists or when there’s room for confusion.

I’ll leave it to a classic meme to explain how and why it matters:

So, even if your personal preference is that you dislike it, please consider your audience. When someone has cognitive difficulties, that extra comma makes a huge difference to how they read a sentence.

Commas shouldn’t be thrown on a page like confetti, but they do force the reader to pause. Which, in some cases, is exactly what you want.

Of course, there are times when it may not fit into a sentence. The context of your sentence will inform if it’s a good fit or not, as will a deeper understanding of your audience.

Use structure to your advantage

Keep your sentences short.

One point per sentence.

If you’re going off on several tangents in one sentence, it most definitely isn’t going to be readable.

I’ve read novels before with paragraph-length sentences. And in a lot of cases, that novel ends up in my (small) DNF pile.

Long, descriptive sentences may have been popular 100 years ago. They’re not anymore.

Even if you love a beautiful description (who doesn’t?) remember there are ways to describe something without making it feel long or floral.

Purple prose, or flowery writing, will always be one of my pet peeves. It’s most popular in epic fantasy, although it can be found everywhere.

It’s just not that accessible for tired brains or short attention spans.

It’s why most indie authors don’t use it and why you should most definitely avoid it in a business blog post.

In any blog post, you want to get to the point. Fast.

Your reader has work to do. They need answers. Not a description of every single colour and type of flower in a plant pot.

Keeping paragraphs short also helps. Ideally, try to aim for no more than three sentences per paragraph.

There may be times when you can break this rule, but remember the mobile readers, I beg of you!

And remember the golden rule: keep them scrolling!

Keep your language simple

If there’s an easier way to explain something, go for that way instead of the complicated way.

(Hint: there’s always an easier way).

The simpler your language is, the less isolating it is.

That means that people can self-segment.

If your content is well-written, you won’t lose a good prospect because they’re too tired to make sense of your verbose, floral language.

People who don’t fit will understand your product isn’t for them but might like your style so pass on your content to someone it is relevant to.

Just because you’re a business that doesn’t mean you have to be boring.

Whatever your business, your content should be relevant and it should resonate with your target audience.

If you’d like some help with making your blog more readable, get in touch today.

What are your best tips on writing for readability? I’d love to know in the comments!

Originally published on LinkedIn. Updated version published here on 22/9/22.