Gwen Davies

Your web site, simple writing, and short sentences

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This may be good news or bad news. It takes longer to write something clear, specific, interesting, and short than to write something longer. My process is to write something, and then edit it down. For a website, you need to edit it down and down again. And as you edit it down, you need to make sure you keep the working words and let go of the filler.

Do people think you’re talking down to them if you write simply?

No – they are grateful that you have made the task of getting the information into something quick and easy. Reading a website is not related to reading The Guardian. Readers want to find what they want, take action, and move on. A website is a tool more than a document.

Since Jakob Nielsen and the British government say it so well, I’m going to give you two long quotes on this subject. Each quote also gives you a few sites to visit.

This comes from Jakob Nielsen

“Even for specialized audiences it’s still best to write as simple as possible. Even highly educated people don’t want to struggle to read your site. You do not impress anybody by spouting highfalutin words or complex sentence structures that require careful parsing. People don’t pay close attention to web content.

In particular, users take around 10 seconds to decide whether a web page is worth their time at all. So if you can’t communicate your key point quickly, you won’t get any message across, because the user will have left the building.”

This comes from the British government

Sentence length: why 25 words is our limit

“Writing guru Ann Wylie describes research showing that when average sentence length is 14 words, readers understand more than 90% of what they’re reading. At 43 words, comprehension drops to less than 10%.

Studies also show that sentences of 11 words are considered easy to read, while those of 21 words are fairly difficult. At 25 words, sentences become difficult, and 29 words or longer, very difficult.

People don’t read

Long sentences aren’t just difficult for people who struggle with reading or have a cognitive disability like dyslexia or attention deficit hyperactivity disorder. They’re also a problem for highly literate people with extensive vocabularies.

This is partly because people tend to scan, not read. In fact, most people only read around 25% of what’s on a page. This means it’s important to get information across quickly.”

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