In his newsletter last week, internet psychologist Graham Jones mentioned research that had looked into what makes some web content more shareable than others.
The researchers had analysed articles on Medium, and found there were several key factors.
One was the length of the content – around 1,800 words ( approximately 7 minutes reading time).
Another was the the “reading age”.
“The study on Medium shows that the content that gains the most engagement has a reading age of 11.”
In terms of their reading age, how old are your readers?
Graham also said:
“Typically for most business websites that I examine the reading age averages around 17 years…The Times newspaper has a reading age of 12; the Daily Mail has a reading age of 10. The reading age of the script on the 10 o’clock news is about ten as well. It is no coincidence that the world’s most popular media have low reading ages. Whatever you might think of the BBC or the Times or CNN or your favourite magazine, one thing unites them all – low reading ages. Most websites have language which is far too complicated.”
Of course, it’s not always easy to describe complicated things using simple language. We may need to describe tiny differences and modalities. However, we should aim for clear and simple language as often as possible.
A related factor was the number of words in a sentence. Graham reported the study found that the most shared content was that which had sentences that were between 12 and 15 words. This matches with best practice at places such as the Government Digital Service, where the aim is to write 11 words per sentence.
Even if your readers are much, much older than eleven, it may be a good idea to pretend they are.
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In the olden days, every family had a record player (also known as a “turntable”), and pretty much everyone knew how to use it. However, if you look at the Customer Questions & Answers section for a turntable currently on sale on Amazon, it’s clear that many people today don’t know how a turntable works, or what it does. Common knowledge sometimes isn’t as common as people think.
Last month, we were asked by a client to deliver our API documentation course to their team as a classroom course. Following on from that, we are now able to offer this one-day course to other companies, in this manner. The course currently varies from our online API documentation course. It includes more content on information design, and research into the different types of users and their needs.
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We’re working on our latest online training course, which is about post-writing and revising technical documentation, and we’re looking for examples of bad content we can use for the course exercises. If you know of anything we could use, please let us know by email.
I’ve been on the road speaking at a conference this week, and I’ve been listening to a lot of presentations on technical communication. Many of these were on the importance of having structured, semantic content when you are dealing with large amounts of content that needs to be translated into different languages and published in many different ways. All of these presentations put forward XML-based systems as the solution.
However, XML isn’t the only method for having semantic content. For example, AsciiDoc supports attributes, which can be used to add a semantic descriptions to headings, paragraphs and whole documents. You can use conditions in RoboHelp and Flare to categorise content. You can also store content in a database.
It’s sometimes useful to remember that XML isn’t the only way to semantic content.
There are user documentation projects where we are asked to write in American English instead of British English, and generally this is a pretty straightforward exercise for us. However, when I speak at conferences in the USA, delegates sometimes ask me afterwards what I meant by a particular expression. For example, I was recently asked what I meant by “round the houses” and “cheesed off“.
There are a large number of subtle differences between the two versions of English, which has led to a number of very interesting blogs on this subject. In particular, Dr. Lynne Murphy’s Separated by a common language and Professor Ben Yagoda’s Not One-Off Britishisms blogs provide a fascinating insight into how words and expressions gain popularity. The Language Log is another blog worth reading.
If the move to a more conversational approach to technical writing grows in popularity, we may see these differences becoming a bigger factor in localis(z)ing to American or British English.