by Nicole Watkins Campbell
Editing for Plainer Legal Writing Instructor
The best way to ensure your document meets readers’ needs is to test it with the audience. Even testing that is quick and cheap can give you useful information about how to improve your document.
What is a test?
A test can be as simple as asking a colleague or a citizen to answer one question about your text or as complicated as inviting 30 people to read your document and answer questions. Almost any test will help you make the writing better. And any test with a member of your audience will get you closer to writing that works for your readers.
When should you test?
Start testing as soon as you have enough material to test. Don’t wait until your document is complete unless it’s a short email.
Make corrections based on feedback, and test again, if you can. The best practice is to test a couple of times, and more if the text is important and could be difficult for your readers.
How should you test?
Several methods will help you improve your document.
Record your results in some way:
Who should you recruit?
Testing documents internally with co-workers while you’re still writing is highly useful. You can then test a final draft with someone from outside your team. Your co-workers will likely read about as well as you do and have the same technical understanding, so you will want other perspectives on the complexity of the language and the topic.
Don’t test with people who know the information in the document or people who helped you get to this point in creating this document. They will know too much about your subject area to notice what’s missing or out of place.
Your word processor or a website like Hemingway Editor will offer quick readability tests. But these long-established ways of describing how readable a text is actually don’t mean much. They were originally created to measure children’s reading skills, not documents for adults.
The software counts syllables (to represent complexity in language), words and paragraphs (to represent complexity in expression) to roughly estimate reading difficulty. The resulting number claims to reflect the number of years of education a person needs to read the text.
Readability measures fail in three main ways:
If your text readability score from Microsoft Word or Hemingway Editor is gets a Grade 10 or higher, you probably need to edit for clarity: many people don’t read at this level. If you test again, you will be able to see if your changes made your sentences easier to read, but you should rely on other methods to make sure your text is clear.
Try setting up a simple test of a bit of writing this week. You will learn something surprising or pleasing. But you will learn something.
Nicole Watkins Campbell
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