Sarah is using the Hemingway Editor to adjust the grade level of her writing.

Making language accessible – 7 tips to write for everyone

21.06.21

You might have useful content, but what if people cannot understand it? Accessible content means that everyone can process it cognitively. This is where writers need to do their part.

Who are the people concerned?

Let’s have a look at the situation in Switzerland. According to a study by the Bundesamt für Statistik from 2006, there are a minimum of 800’000 people in Switzerland who have difficulty reading and understanding complicated texts. For these people access to everyday information is more difficult. Signing up for a phone plan online, finding information about public transport or using e-banking can present serious challenges for them because of the language that these companies use. Texts in simple language help them use these services.

A comparison between the "normal" language and the Easy Read format used by the BAG.
A comparison between the everyday language and the Easy Read format used by the BAG to talk about the Coronavirus.

The people with difficulties reading and understanding texts include

  • people with a reading and writing weakness, for instance dyslexia.
  • people who are limited in their understanding due to their age or an illness, like for example dementia. Older people find it particularly difficult to understand complex sentences, unusual words and technical jargon.
  • people with low language proficiency, like someone who is reading a text in a language that is not their mother tongue.

What are the guidelines for writers?

Writers can help everyone to understand content by making it accessible – through simple language. There are two traditions: simple language and the easy read format (easy language). Easy language has its origin with the US organisation People First and it follows a particular set of rules. Simple or plain language on the other hand does not follow any specific guidelines. The sentences can be longer and more complex than easy language and it’s okay to use all the words of everyday language. This article focuses only on simple language. So here is a list of best practices to make your content easier to understand:

  1. Write for your audience: Use language they are familiar with. Avoid abbreviations, jargon or foreign language terms.
  2. Focus on structure: Keep a logical order and put important things first. Add structure with titles and paragraphs. Highlight key take-away points and use lists when there are 3 or more points.
  3. Keep it concise: Write short sentences without nesting. Ideally there is one thought per sentence.
  4. Use plain language: Don’t use long or complex words like “circumlocution”. Make it clear who is the actor by using the active voice.
  5. Avoid idioms and metaphors: Explain what you mean directly and name things explicitly.
  6. Use visual aids: Use images to help explain your argument. Make sure your font size is large enough to read. Have enough spacing between your lines and align your text to the left.
  7. Keep in mind technical aspects: Mark language changes. Screen readers will pronounce words correctly if the right language is indicated in the code.

I wrote something. How do I know it is accessible?

Ideally, test your content with the people you are writing for. If that is not possible, have it at least checked by someone who is not an expert in the topic. There are also a number of tools to check your writing. They give a readability score that shows the level of education a person needs to understand the text. You can then edit your content based on the tool’s suggestions. The Hemingway Editor is a great free tool and if you are willing to invest a bit you could check out Readable.

Further resources on simple language:

At Nothing, accessibility is at the core of everything we create. You need someone to help make your content accessible to all audiences? Get in touch with Angela at angela@nothing.ch