Because improved readability leads to more reader engagement, which, in return, generates more response (aka opens, clicks, calls, shares, retweets, leads, orders and dollars), we’re doing a follow-up to our recent article on encouraging cross-channel reader engagement.
We’re a Midwestern writer and East Coast designer whose livelihoods depend on increasing response. We know from experience readability and engagement have every bit as much to do with how words are presented as the message the words themselves convey. And yes, we know for a fact: readability does lead to engagement.
The following do’s and don’ts checklist provides tips for increasing readability from both a writer’s and a designer’s perspective. Feel free to share and let us know what you think. (We love response!)
Your Readability Checklist
• Too Close: Probably the most common design problem affecting readability is running text or graphics too close to the edge of a page, gutter or another column. Doing this makes the “page” (digital or print) feel crowded — too close for comfortable reading.
Generally, you want to leave at least 1/2″ to 5/8″ between the edge of your text or graphics and the edge of the page and gutters. For neighboring columns you also need to give comfortable breathing space that depends on the layout. White space provides a comfort zone for the reader’s eye.
• Too Long: When a line of text goes beyond 40-60 characters or 9-12 words, the eye has difficulty tracking from the end of one line to the beginning of the next. Readers look at words in groups of 3-4, which is why a shorter line length contributes to greater readability.
Studies show people will make 3-4 pauses while reading a line before getting tired and, frankly, giving up. (Hmmm … do you think this may be why attorneys write using a longer line length?)
The same goes for words, sentences and paragraph. Shorter is easier to scan and faster to digest. Longer words, sentences and paragraphs look less inviting to read and more difficult to process. Generally speaking, keep 75-80% of your words to 5 characters or less; sentences to 1-1/2 lines or less; and paragraphs to 6 lines or less. And yes, there are exceptions to these rules. Just make sure you have good reasons for breaking them.
• Too Narrow: A too narrow column of copy is hard to read since it may contain only 3-5 words causing the reader to have to jump to the next line too frequently. Too narrow columns also create more hyphenated words and hyphens interrupt eye flow.
If you have to use a narrow column, don’t use it for long copy. Use it in one-sentence situations.
For example, narrow columns are a stylistic design solution for a short quote, caption, or introductory paragraph … but not for long content.
• Too Tight or Too Loose: Good news! Today’s computerized type programs let you both tighten AND loosen letter and word spacing that’s too tight or too loose. When typography spacing is done well, no one notices (except for the grateful writer who doesn’t have to agree to weird line breaks) and it helps readability.
It’s easy to tighten type to eliminate a widow (one word on its own line) or get rid of an orphan (the last line of a paragraph that ends up all by itself — an orphan — on a new column or new page). Just make sure you don’t overcorrect and end up with text that’s too tight for fast and easy reading.
• Too Much of a Good Thing: Bullets, subheads, italics, and bold text are good tools for increasing scannability. They provide bite-size bits of information that are easily scanned and look different from the rest of your text.