The degree to which prose can be understood, based on the complexity of words and sentences.

Readability is determined by factors such as word length, word commonality, sentence length, number of clauses in a sentence, and number of syllables in a sentence. It is an attribute that is seldom considered—either because designers are not sensitive or aware of its importance, or because of the common belief that complex information requires complex presentation. In fact, complex information requires the simplest presentation possible, so that the focus is on the information rather than the way it is presented.

For enhanced readability, omit needless words and punctuation, but be careful not to sacrifice meaning or clarity in the process. Avoid acronyms, jargon, and untrans- lated quotations in foreign languages. Keep sentence length appropriate for the intended audience. Generally, use active voice, but consider passive voice when the emphasis is on the message and not the messenger. When attempting to produce text for a specific reading level, use published readability formulas and software applications designed for this purpose.

A variety of readability formulas and software applications are available to assist designers in producing prose with specific readability levels. The readability rating is usually represented in the form of school levels ranging from 1st to 12th grade and college. While different tools may use slightly different approaches for calculating readability, they all generally use the same combination of core readability factors mentioned above.1

Use these formulas to verify that the textual components of a design are at the approximate reading level of the intended audience. However, do not write for the formulas. Readability formulas are primitive guides and should not outweigh all other considerations. For example, more sentences per paragraph may increase readability for lower-level readers, but frustrate readability for more advanced readers who are distracted by the lack of continuity. Simple language is preferred, but overly simple language obscures meaning.2

Consider readability when creating designs that involve prose. Express complex material in the simplest way possible. Follow guidelines for enhancing readability, and verify that the readability level approximates the level of the intended audience.3

See also Legibility and Ockham’s Razor.

Edward Fry’s Readability Graph

1. Randomly select three sample passages from a text.

2. Count 100 words starting at the beginning of these passages (count proper nouns, but not numbers).

3. Count the number of sentences in each 100-word passage, estimating the length of the last sentence to the nearest 1/10th.

4. Count the total number of syllables in each 100-word passage.

5. Calculate the average number of sentences and average number of syllables for the 100-word passage. If a great deal of variability is found, sample additional passages.

6. The area of intersection on the graph between the number of sentences and average number of syllables indicate the estimated grade level. Invalid regions indicate that a reading level could not be estimated.

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