How can you make your web copy readable and accessible?

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When writing for the web, how much care do you take to make sure your content is accessible and readable?

The difference between accessibility and readability

Accessible means that people can understand your content even if they are visually impaired or have other disabilities

Readable means that people can easily read, understand and recall what you have written

But my users don't have problems accessing my content

Are you sure? How do you know? As Trenton Moss says in his Webcredible piece the benefits of accessible websites,  the statistics on the number of users who may face difficulties due to your website's accessibility are quite startling:

  • 8.6 million registered disabled people in the UK (14% of the population) 
  • One in 12 men and one in 200 women have some form of colour blindness (9%)
  • Two million UK residents have a sight problem (4%)
  • There are 12 million people aged 60 or over (21%)

"Although there is inevitably some overlap between the aforementioned groups, adding up these numbers provides a total of 48% of the UK population that could potentially face problems with your website's accessibility," says Moss.

"That's an extraordinarily high number."

How to make your content more accessible

So if you want visitors to your website to stay on your site rather than click away, it might be time to make some changes.

We're copy and content specialists, so here are a few things we could recommend to improve things in this area:

  • Content has to make sense without you being able to see the images or video, so provide a text equivalent for any images and video content (known as alt tags)
  • Make all text of two or more lines aligned to the left
  • Use plain language and avoid jargon (get handy with the A-Z of Alternative Words)
  • Aim for large headings and subheadings, with short paragraphs in between
  • Keep each line to below 70 characters
  • If you have an abbreviation, write it out in full the first time then refer to it by the acronym after that
  • Use 'to' rather than a '–' because screen readers find it easier to read
  • Make sure readers can enlarge the text if need be
  • Work closely with your developers to make sure they're up to speed with the W3C web content accessibility guidelines

So it's accessible. Now make it readable!

Since the autumn I've been working with Government Digital Services to deliver training in writing for the web and for the Gov.uk platform.

A central goal of the project is making government information open to all, so it's important to make sure the content can be understood by a wide range of people with differing language skills and physical abilities.

The Gov.uk style guide outlines a number of ways in which the content should be written so it is as readable as possible:

  • use bullet points and subheadings to break up the text
  • front-load your subheadings, titles and bullet points. This means putting the most important bit first
  • avoid block capitals
  • write in short sentences
  • use simple vocabulary
  • use words that are easy to understand
By the time a child is 5 or 6 years old, they’ll use 2,500 to 5,000 common words. Even as adults, we find these words easier to recognise and understand.

When you use a longer word (8 or 9 letters), users are more likely to skip shorter words that follow it, words of 3, 4 or 5 letters.

So if you use longer, more complicated words, readers will skip more. Keep it simple.
— Government Digital Services

Is there a magic formula for readability?

I find all this pretty fascinating as I'm a firm believer in the way that the internet can democratise information. It's an inspiring project to be part of.

I'm also acutely aware that the people writing web content may have excellent language skills and the latest tech on which to view their work, but the people reading it may not.

With all this as a backdrop to other projects we have on the go, the Flesch-Kincaid readability test caught my eye recently when using the Yoast SEO plugin on WordPress sites.

A formula for working out readability  how interesting! In short, content is given a score for how readable it is:

  • 90 to 100 is easily understood by an 11-year-old student
  • 60 to 70 is easily understood by 13 to 15-year-old students
  • 0 to 30 is best understood by university graduates

The calculation is based on:

  • character and syllable count

  • word and sentence count

  • characters and syllables per word

  • words per sentence

Want to see how readable your web copy is? Try a site like Readability Score or run a test in Microsoft Office. Once you have the data, you can set about improving the situation to make it as readable as possible to a wider audience. Give it a go and let me know how it affects the way you write for the web.

The Web is fundamentally designed to work for all people, whatever their hardware, software, language, culture, location, or physical or mental ability.

When the Web meets this goal, it is accessible to people with a diverse range of hearing, movement, sight, and cognitive ability.
— Worldwide Web Consortium (W3C)