Content accessibility part 2: Writing in plain English

By Hannah Collins

27 May 2022

Want your writing to be simple, clear and accessible? Find out how in part 2 of our series on content accessibility.

Welcome to part 2 of our series on content accessibility. In part 1, we talked about:

  • what plain English is
  • why it’s important for government services

In this post, we’ll cover:

  • tips for writing in plain English
  • how to use readability tools and metrics

Writing in plain English

Plain English is a bit like Marie Kondo-ing your sentences. Everything that goes in should add value. Anything unnecessary gets cut. It’s a different style of writing to what most of us are used to. Even the most experienced writers might be surprised to see just how high the readability level of their content is. Writing in plain English is not rocket science – but it takes some practise. Here are my top tips!

Write in short sentences

Splitting up long sentences makes content more readable. You can also vary your sentence length. Using a combination of short and long sentences balances out the average sentence length of your content. This helps keep readability scores low. Aim for an average sentence length of a maximum 15-20 words.

Use sub-headers and bullet lists

Take a look at the following examples. The words used are almost exactly the same, but by structuring the content in different ways we can improve the readability.

In version 1, all text is in a single sentence. When put it into Hemingway Editor, it is highlighted in red as a complex sentence. The readability score is grade 9.

A screenshot of Hemingway Editor. There is a paragraph of text highlighted in red. It is given a readability score of Grade 9.

In version 2, no words have been altered, but each clause (word group) has been put into a bullet point. The readability score is grade 8.

A screenshot of Hemingway Editor. A paragraph of text is broken up into a bullet list, highlighted in yellow. It has a readability score of Grade 8.

In version 3, each bullet point has been turned into a sentence with a sub-header. A few words have been altered. The readability score is grade 5. Which of those versions do you find easiest to read?

A screenshot of Hemingway Editor. There are 3 paragraphs of short text underneath with sub-titles. It is given a readability score of Grade 5.

Use active language

Active voice is your friend. It makes sentences simple and clear. Passive voice makes sentences longer and harder to understand. To write in active voice:

  • write in the present tense
  • hero the subject of your sentence – not the object

I’ll give you an example: The quick brown fox (subject) jumps (present tense) over the lazy dog (object) That’s active voice.

Here it is written in passive voice: The lazy dog (object) was jumped over by (past tense) the quick brown fox (subject).

Sometimes the subject of the sentence is missing, which is called distancing language: The lazy dog (object) was jumped over (past tense).

You’ll often see passive voice and distancing language when people are trying to down-play their role in something. Can you think of any examples of this?

Exercise: cut the chaff

Here’s an easy exercise you can do to practise your plain English writing:

  1. Take a paragraph of something you’re working on.
  2. Cross out the non-essential words, leaving only those that are essential to understanding the content.

How many words can you cross out?

Using readability tools and metrics

There are lots of readability tools and scoring methods available to help people write in plain English. I’ve listed a few that are widely used and that I find helpful.

Hemingway Editor

Hemingway editor is a free online tool for editing draft content. It’s great for identifying long sentences, complex words and passive voice. Long may it reign.

Microsoft Word – Editor

Some organisations do not use Hemingway because of their information security policies. Microsoft Word’s in-built editor tool is a basic alternative. To access this tool, go to the ‘Review’ tab, then select ‘Editor’ on the left of the screen. Spelling and grammar corrections will surface on the right of your screen. Click ‘Document stats’ to access readability metrics.

Web FX

This is another free online tool that allows you to calculate the readability of a web page or paste text into it. It shows scores from a variety of readability metrics, including Flesch Kincaid, Gunning Fog, SMOG and more.

Understanding readability scoring

Not to make this a maths lesson, but readability scoring is… complex. The main things you need to know are:

  • readability is assessed by the average reading age of content
  • reading age is expressed as an education level, for example grade or year
  • different readability formulas use different equations and scoring

What reading age should I aim for?

Different organisations have different reading ages set by their style guide. GOV.UK writes for a reading age of 9. The Guardian has a reading age of 14. For plain English, aim for a reading age of 11 to 13 years old. (In the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines, this is expressed as ‘lower secondary education level’. But we’ll get to WCAG in part 3 of this series.)

Reading ease

If you’re using Flesch Kincaid, you’ll be scored on ‘reading ease’ as well. This is a score out of 100. For plain English, aim for a reading ease of 65 or higher.

3 quick hacks for lowering readability scores

If you’ve followed the tips above and your readability score is still high, it’s usually for one of these reasons.

You have a high percentage of complex words

Tools like Microsoft Word’s Editor and WebFX will tell you the percentage of complex words in your sample. If it’s high (e.g. above 25%), try pasting your content back into Hemingway to see if there simpler alternatives for some of your words.

Hack: look for words with 3 or more syllables. Destroy them.

Your sample includes too many bullet lists, titles or HTML junk

Readability tools strip out the HTML from your text. They read bullet lists as one long sentence, and titles as part of the following sentence. If you’ve pasted an image into your sample, it will leave a messy HTML description that will score as a complex sentence.

Hack: edit your sample in Hemingway before pasting into a tool like WebFX. Cut bullet lists and titles out or put a full stop at the end of each item.

Your sample is too small

Readability scores work on averages. In a small sample, 1 or 2 long sentences or complex words can increase the reading age by a lot.

Hack: aim for a sample size of 100 words minimum.

A final note on readability metrics

Readability tools are unreliable by their nature. Putting the same content into different tools will often give you different results. Likewise, the score you get depends on the sample you use. Do not rely on a readability tool tell you if your content is understandable. The only person who can tell you that is your user.

How we can help

Need support with plain English? Get in touch today to speak to us about how our expert user-centred design team can help.

Resource: Reading age conversion table

For those of us in the UK, the American grade level system used in most readability tools can be hard to understand. The table below shows an approximate conversion. Note this may not be accurate to all tools.

School grade (US) School year (UK) Age Reading difficulty
4 5 9-10 Very easy
5 6 10-11 Very easy
6 7 11-12 Easy
7 8 12-13 Fairly easy
8 9 13-14 Standard
9 (high school freshman) 10 (GCSEs) 14-15 Standard
10 (high school sophomore) 11 (GCSEs) 15-16 Standard
11 (high school junior) 12 (A-Levels) 16-17 Fairly difficult
12 (high school senior) 13 (A-Levels) 17-18 Fairly difficult
College University 18+ Difficult
College graduates University graduates 21+ Very confusing