TL;DR: Broaden and deepen your understanding of your reader, and assume they need your post to be more clear and concise in order to understand your ideas.
But readability isn't just "clarity and brevity"; let's talk about assumptions for approachability and ways to step into the mind of your reader.
- Prose On Writing and Revising and the reasoning behind "readability"
- List of Readable Writing Tips and helpful assumptions to make of your reader
- The Best Advice on writing and revising
- Breakdown of Principles on readable and approachable writing
- Collection of References and resources
- Quick Conclusion
Relevance to EA
I ended up writing an entire prequel post for this post that explains why I was inspired to write this on the EA Forum in the first place and why I want to make the EA Forum more readable and approachable. You can read this preface here: Toward a more approachable and accessible EA Forum
(Just For Fun) Foreword
Most posts begin with a quote by some "wise" old person (who probably already said most of what the author is hoping to say in their post). It seems fun, so I made up this "proverbial" quote and hope you read it in the raspy voice of an old, wise person:
It is not a matter of merely writing and publishing; one must edit and revise as well.
So too is it not only a matter of what can be read; rather, one must ask: "What will be read?"
On Writing and Revising
Write to be Read
When you write a post, your end goal is for your readers to understand you and your ideas.
Presumably, these are the steps you hope to achieve with your writing process:
- You write a post about ideas.
- Others read your post.
- Others understand your ideas.
- (Others do something with those ideas.)
But dang, even making it to step 2 is a challenge!
How can you ensure that anyone will even read your writings, nevertheless begin to understand the ideas you've written about?
Understand to be understood
Upon closer inspection, you need to know: (1) who your reader is, and then (2) how to write posts that will be readable and understandable to them.
Now this process involves more nuanced steps:
- Ensure you understand your readers. ("Who is reading my writing?")
- Ensure your readers understand you. ("Will they understand my writing?")
If you understand your readers, then you can write in a way that your readers understand you. Thus, good writing: (1) can be read and will be read, and (2) is understanding and understandable. But good understanding requires you to form an accurate representation (mentalization) of your readers.
One of the hardest parts of writing is trying to put yourself in the mind of your reader and examine your prose from the mental perspective of "the other" (for example: "The Curse of Knowledge").
This list attempts to capture best practices for a functional theory of mind of your reader.
Readable Writing Tips
I've purposely designed this section to be a numbered list that can be easily referenced/referred to when people are providing editing and revision advice to each other's drafts.
For instance, one editor might suggest to an author:
"While I love your tone, word-choice, and style, this currently feels opaque to some readers because it's mostly a large chunk of paragraphs with a TL;DR at the top. I think it could be much more comprehensible with some headings (#8) and transitions (#14), along with a sentence near your TL;DR summary that briefly explains the motivation (#6)."
Each tip has a number, a name, an assumption to make about your reader, a question your reader might ask, and a strategy or two to implement.
Extra preliminary tip: If you do not already have a specific target audience in mind, default to the assumption that: your post may be read by any of the estimated 1 billion English-speaking adults with internet access.
- Assume your reader has never heard of the key terms in your post.
- "What does this mean?"
- Reduce or eliminate jargon and obscure/esoteric language.
- Clearly define necessary terminology/vocabulary.
- Assume your reader has never heard of the metaphors in your post.
- "What does that represent?"
- Reduce metaphors and analogies.
- Clearly explain the relationships in any necessary metaphors or analogies.
- Assume your reader needs concrete concepts to understand your post.
- "What does this mean in real life?"
- Map abstract concepts to reality.
- Map theoretical ideas to practical applications.
- Assume your reader may not have any particular knowledge or prior familiarity with the topic(s) in your post.
- "What is this?"
- Reduce domain-specific/esoteric language.
- Clearly establish the context, and define/reference your domain for context.
- Assume your reader does not have much time to read your post.
- "What can I read in 5 minutes?"
- Reduce the length of your post.
- Be concise, brief, and succinct.
- Assume your reader does not know why they should read your post.
- "Why should I read this?"
- Explain the value of your post.
- Explain why it is worth their time, attention, focus, and understanding.
- Assume your reader does not know what key point(s) to take away from your post.
- "What should I remember from this?"
- Use a TL;DR or an executive summary.
- Clearly and concisely define/outline the most important idea(s).
- Assume your reader relies on headings to keep track of context in your post.
- "What is this section about?"
- Use headings to segment your post into clearly identifiable sections.
- Assume your reader does not know what you're concluding in your post.
- "So what?"
- Provide a clear, concise conclusion.
- Assume your reader does not understand how the concepts are related in your post.
- "What does that have to do with this?"
- Clearly define all of the factors/variables and concepts/ideas you will connect.
- Connect the dots and outline relationships between ideas.
- Walk readers through your reasoning when relating ideas.
- Assume your reader does not understand the logic behind the conclusion(s) in your post.
- "How can I conclude that?"
- Clearly define all of the premises and steps necessary to form your conclusion(s).
- Spell out the logic when making a conclusion.
- Assume your reader has not made any of the observations you have that you use to make inference(s) in your post.
- "How do I infer this?"
- Clearly establish the context by defining your observations and how you believe they are related/relevant.
- Supply the concrete details.
- Assume your reader does not know why your post matters.
- "So what?"
- Be pragmatic and provide practical applications that explain why your post is important and relevant to life/reality.
- Assume your reader needs clear transitions to follow your flow/train of thought in your post.
- "How do these things relate?"
- Use clear transitions to cue the reader and connect previous ideas to the next ideas.
- Assume your reader wants to feel a human connection to you and your post.
- "Do I feel like I connect with this?"
- Be real, conversational, and convivial (simpatico).
- Assume your reader is making a first impression of you that will determine whether or not they will ever engage with you or your posts.
- "Is this a good first impression?"
- Be warm, friendly, and pleasant.
- Assume your reader won't understand or remember your idea(s) if they cannot connect and relate to your post.
- "Does this have any relation or relevance to me?"
- Use familiar, congenial, and understandable language.
- Assume your reader may be sensitive to the topic(s) in your post.
- "Is this insensitive?"
- Replace judgmental, condescending, or overly critical language with kind, considerate, and respectful language.
- Assume your reader may get bored or disinterested with your post.
- "Is this interesting?"
- Replace dry, dull, and monotonous language with fun, stimulating, and compelling language.
- Assume your reader wants a quick, conversational summary in your post.
- "Whatchya writing about?"
- Final revising technique: Quickly paraphrase/read your writing out loud to a friend in about 2 minutes, skimming and summarizing it from beginning to end.
- How do you word things quickly and conversationally?
- What main points did you cover? Did you phrase them better when speaking?
- What points did you skip? Could they be removed?
- What questions did your friend ask you? Do you answer those in your writing?
- How did you feel saying everything out loud?
- How did your friend feel while listening?
- Did your friend understand your ideas?
An additional tip for the forum:
- Assume your reader believes that you represent the EA community in your post.
- "What's this EA community like?"
- Be welcoming, inclusive, and considerate.
"Whoa, 22 tips! That's too many; just gimme the good stuff."
Ok, fine; 22 is a big number. Here's the best advice I can offer in 3 steps:
- While you're writing, think of 3-5 diverse people as your audience (e.g. someone old, someone young, someone from another country, someone from a different socioeconomic background, someone from a different culture, etc). Make sure they are real people that you know well enough to imagine their responses. Picture them reading and reacting to your post, sentence by sentence. What do they say? (Revise as you go.)
- Once you've finished your first draft, imagine watching 2 of your favorite authors read your post. How would they react? If you asked for them for feedback, how would they reply? (Go back and rewrite again.)
- Finally, once you've gone through a few drafts and feel like you've got it, ask at least 2 diverse people to read it and give you feedback. (Make your final revisions.)
Underlying each of these tips are fundamental ideals on what "good" writing is, based on core concepts of readability and approachability.
Readable writing is:
- Clear (Clarity)
- Brief (Brevity)
Approachable writing is:
I'm not the first person to write about readability (on a forum or otherwise), so I want to call out great resources on this topic.
First, a video:
- Steven Pinker's speech/presentation on readability topics (from his book The Sense of Style), such as "Why is it so hard for writers to use language to convey ideas effectively?"
EA Forum posts
- When you shouldn't use EA jargon and how to avoid it
- 3 suggestions about jargon in EA
- The Case for Reducing EA Jargon & How to Do It
On interest and impact
- Why fun writing can save lives: the case for it being high impact to make EA writing entertaining
- EA can sound less weird, if we want it to
- For Better Commenting, Avoid PONDS
- Guide to norms on the Forum
- Suggestions for Online EA Discussion Norms
"It's all about empathy, baby!" — the less "proverbial" young person
It sounds oxymoronic and paradoxical at first, but making assumptions about your reader can actually help your writing become more understandable to a broader audience.
The key is in which assumptions you make!
It really comes down to:
- Don't assume your reader is you!
- Instead, assume your reader is someone else who would happily understand you if you write for them.
I believe that "writing for the reader" is the most caring thing an author can do.
P.S. From the author: I'm still learning all of this now, so my writings from before (October 2022) are not good examples of readable posts. I don't always exemplify this skill yet, so please don't call me a hypocrite until at least a few posts/months later 😅 ↩︎