Digital accessibility should be a priority for your entire organization — and that certainly includes content writers.
Disabilities can affect reading comprehension in a variety of ways. For example, conditions like dyslexia, aphasia, and autism can make it difficult to focus on written words. Many people use screen readers, which read text as audio; if sentences are extremely long, the user might have trouble interpreting its meaning.
Like many accessibility improvements, clearer content benefits every web user. Here are a few techniques to keep in mind when writing.
1. Avoid industry jargon and provide definitions for uncommon words
“Jargon" is overly technical words and expressions that aren’t commonly used outside of a specific group. For example, a chemistry paper might mention “dihydrogen monoxide,” which most readers know by its common name, “water.”
Don’t assume that your readers understand your industry’s jargon. Writers sometimes use technical language to appear authoritative — but too much jargon can have the opposite effect.
In one study published in the Australian Journal of Management, overuse of technical language negatively affected the participants’ perceptions of expert advice. To put that another way: Jargon can seem untrustworthy, and it makes reading comprehension more difficult.
A few quick tips:
- Review your content. Use simple, common words wherever possible.
- When using technical terms, provide a quick definition.
- If you regularly use uncommon words, consider adding a glossary or a pop-up definition.
- Write out acronyms and initialisms when using them for the first time.
2. When possible, use literal language
Try to write sentences that directly deliver important information. Idioms, metaphors, and other figurative expressions can create confusion for some readers.
Literal language can help you reach a broader audience. For example, most native English speakers know that the phrase “it’s raining cats and dogs" has the same meaning as the phrase “it’s raining hard.” However, people who speak English as a second language might not understand the meaning. Additionally, some commonly used phrases may be offensive to people with disabilities.
Figurative language can also make your content more exciting and interesting, and it might be appropriate in certain contexts. However, as a general rule, literal language is more appropriate for web content.
3. Limit the length of your sentences
Long sentences can fatigue readers. Most writing resources recommend a maximum sentence length of 20-25 words, but some research suggests that shorter sentences are more comprehensible for average readers.
You don’t need to count the words in every sentence, however. Try to break up long, complex sentences when writing. Using automated readability analyzers can help you determine whether you need to simplify your content, but remember that all automated tools have limitations.
Finally, use simple verb tenses. This helps you limit your sentence length and makes your content more “scannable" for readers. Gallaudet University provides a helpful guide for English verb tenses here.
4. Break up your content
Most people won’t read every word of your content (even if it’s extremely well-written). Web users look for relevant information, so break up your content with lists, subheadings, and multimedia elements.
Make sure you use proper semantic HTML when using any of these techniques. Semantic HTML describes the purpose of on-page elements, which helps assistive technologies use them predictably. For instance, a screen reader user may scan your web page by reading your subheadings, but if you don’t use heading tags to identify your subheadings, they won’t have that option.
When adding images, infographics, and other visual elements, make sure you provide alternative text (also called alt text). Text provides an accessible option for people who can’t perceive visual content, and accurate text alternatives are essential for web accessibility.
Clear content improves accessibility and benefits every user
Many accessibility improvements impact users who don’t live with permanent disabilities, and reasoning comprehension is an excellent example. According to a study from the National Assessment of Adult Literacy (NAAL), about 29% of U.S. adults tested at a basic prose literacy level. 14% of adults tested at a below-basic literacy level, while 44% tested at an intermediate level.
By choosing commonly used words and writing simple sentences, content creators can communicate more effectively. Remember, accessibility has enormous benefits for real-world users, and adopting better practices can help you grow your brand.
For more guidance, download our free Definitive Website Accessibility Checklist.