See also: How to Determine Your Audience
Readership is important to writership. Authors write to be read, even though writing for its own sake of writing can be therapeutic.
Once you have a single person to represent your audience (read more about that here), you write to that person. So how do you change your writing to become more readable for your one person?
The Readability Formula
In my experience, readability breaks down into two components.
diction + syntax = readability
Your word choice (diction) and the complexity of your sentences (syntax) make your writing more or less accessible to your audience. Writing for an audience is just choosing the right level of diction and syntax.
These are the two components that determine a text’s Lexile. Using simple sentences with strong vocabulary makes a text more difficult to read. Using simple words in complex sentences makes a text more difficult to read.
Formatting also impacts your readability, but I left it out of the equation because it’s a part of the revision process and not your actual writing. You can have the best writing in the world, but if it’s not presented well (think font size, placement on the page, etc.) no one will be able to read it.
How do I change diction?
Have you ever explained a complex concept to a toddler? Probably, because toddlers ask zillions of questions about complex things.
You have to use vocabulary that they understand, and also define things that they don’t understand. They may not know what electricity is, but most of them know what lightning is.
The same is true for any audience. Since we determine our audience by imagining one person, you write at the level of that person. Decide what they do and don’t know about your subject, and then write as if you were in conversation with them about that subject.
Pro tip: Use a thesaurus if you need to increase your diction.
Let’s use this post as an example. I’ve chosen to use the word “diction” over “word choice” because the person I’m writing to (my audience) knows what it means. You may not have used the term for yourself, so I’ve written a couple sentences where I distinguish that diction is the same thing as word choice.
Bonus tip: phrase your ideas in different ways.
- It proves that you as the author have a strong grasp on your idea.
- It increases comprehension by providing multiple angles on your idea.
How do I know I’m using the right diction?
As the writer, you are the authority over your reader. It’s better to over-explain than to under-explain. At the same time, you shouldn’t underestimate your reader’s intelligence.
The only advice I can offer here is to get someone else to read your work before you submit or publish it. Preferably someone who is very similar to the person you are writing for.
This is especially necessary when writing in academia. Most of your readers are other writers, and therefore other authorities in your field. You don’t want to insult their intelligence, but you do want to present your ideas in the most readable fashion. Get someone else to help you out.
How do I change syntax?
I love commas in my writing. But when I write online, I pare down my long-winded sentences and get to the point. Why? Because simpler sentences are easier to scan, and online readers scan.
But when I write prose or academic writing, I let loose and have some fun. I make sure my sentences are grammatically correct. And I give myself permission to write complex sentences because my readers are going to follow the whole thought.
How to simplify your syntax:
- Get straight to the point.
- Use shorter (and more) sentences.
- Cut introductory phrases.
How to make your syntax more complex:
- Write longer sentences, using conjunctions and more phrases.
- Have more than one idea in the same sentence.
Readable writing tends to be simpler. Complex sentences do not necessarily increase the intelligence or readability of your writing. Typically it is better to write simpler sentences with high diction than complex sentences with simple diction.
This article breaks down writing for a specific audience really well if you want more ideas.
Writing for an audience is two parts: knowing one person that exemplifies your audience, and making your writing readable to that person. You adjust your writing by choosing the best diction and sentence complexity. in revision, you can further access your audience by formatting it in a way that allows them to easily follow.
What do you think—how do you write for an audience? What tips and tricks do you have for elevating or simplifying diction and syntax? Share in the comments!