It’s simple, free and easy to include more people with your writing.
It doesn’t matter if we’re dyspraxic, autistic or distracted, we all benefit.
Let’s start with one of the most powerful changes you can make: simple writing.
In this article we’ll cover:
what simple writing is,
why we should use it, and
how to use it.
What’s simple writing?
Simple writing means:
short, everyday words (no jargon or complex, unusual words),
short, simple sentences,
Why should we use it?
Short sentences and short paragraphs are quick to read.
And you only have to read them once, because the meaning is clear.
Short, everyday words are easy to read. For everyone.
Simple writing is great for people who:
Struggle to focus
Conditions like ADHD, chronic pain, and anxiety make it hard to stay focused.
Speak English as an additional language
Reading in your non-native language can be exhausting.
About 1 in 10 of us is dyslexic.* Dyslexia affects how you process and remember information, so short and clear sentences are extra important.
There are loads of other ways to make your writing dyslexia-friendly. We’ll cover them in a future newsletter. 😊
Find reading difficult
Maybe we had bad experiences at school, or didn’t get a lot of formal education. Maybe we just don’t identify as a “word person.” There are lots of reasons people struggle with reading, and it may be more common than you think.
Did you know the average reading level of adults in the UK is entry Level 3? That’s what used to be called a reading age of 9 to 11.
A lot of us are in a hurry, a lot of the time.
Clear, concise writing saves us time. So we can use that time for things that really matter, like chaotically multi-tasking our way through hundreds more tasks on our to-do lists.
It takes less mental effort
Reading takes mental effort.
When we read or listen to a sentence — especially one with subordinate clauses, just like this one, which add information on to the main part of the sentence, but can’t stand alone — we use working memory to remember how the sentence started, and hold that information in mind. Phew.
The longer and more complex a sentence is, the harder it is to process.
It’s even harder if you have a:
Permanent impairment or disability
If you have a neurological condition, you might have low working memory. Or if you’re blind and use assistive technology like a screenreader, it’s easier to listen to short, clear sentences that get straight to the point.
Temporary impairment, like having a broken wrist.
It might be hard for you to scroll through a long webpage on your phone, to find the bit you need.
Situational impairment, like trying to read on your phone outside, in bright sunshine.
Examples of permanent, temporary and situational disabilities and impairments. Source: Mismatch, by Kat Holmes.
Most people scan the page; they don’t read every word.
That’s true if you’re reading visually, or if you use assistive technology like a screenreader to listen to a written page.
When you write in short words and sentences, and break up your writing with frequent headings and subheadings, it’s easier to scan.
People who use screenreaders often want to skip to the section that’s relevant to them. If you use lots of clear and descriptive headings and subheadings, it’s easier for screenreader users to generate a list of subheadings and jump to the one that’s relevant.
Our emotions can cause temporary impairment, too. If we’re depressed, anxious, worried, grieving — or experiencing any other mental and emotional struggles — it’s harder to read. Our interest, focus and memory can all suffer.
So creating simple content isn’t just clearer and more accessible; it’s kinder, too.
Abstruse, polysyllabic or sesquipedalian vocabulary can disorientate, bamboozle and discombobulate.
Sometimes we think we need to use elaborate words to sound smart. But long words don’t make you sound clever. Niche cultural references can exclude people. And jargon can make almost anything sound dull.
Simple, everyday words send a message: this content is for everyone.
Some people have a very literal understanding of language, including some autistic people. Stripping out idioms, metaphors or niche cultural references can keep the meaning clear.
For example, I talk about ‘unusual’ word choices, not ‘flowery’ ones. They mean roughly the same thing, but unusual is literal, and flowery is figurative.
When we default to simple, literal, everyday words, the higher the chance is our readers will know what we’re saying.
People want it
Simple writing isn’t just an accessibility issue.
It’s often more interesting
Simple writing is often bolder, more confident and more energetic than complex writing.
It makes us:
avoid clichés and boring idioms,
tell more stories,
include vivid examples,
use short words, which can speed up the pace,
write short sentences, which can add drama,
think deeply about what we’re trying to say,
get to the point.
Now let’s try it out.
Here are 8 ways to get started.
1. Use a free tool
Paste your writing into Hemingway Editor. It highlights long sentences, complex words, passive voice and more, and shows you how to make your writing simpler.
Try Brevity 500, a game that challenges you to rewrite text making it shorter and punchier.
Or Explain Jargon, the Chrome Extension that helps you ditch jargon.
➡️ Hemingway Editor.
➡️ Brevity 500.
➡️ Explain Jargon.
2. Focus on your reader
Don’t write with a well-rested, relaxed and healthy reader in mind. Write for someone who’s:
been up all night with a new baby, so they don’t have energy to spare,
blind and listening to the page through a screenreader, so unnecessary words take up minutes of their time,
reading from their phone, on the bus, while carrying a heavy bag of shopping, worrying about money, and trying not to miss their stop.
3. Default to simple words
Don’t use a complex word if a simple one will do.
You could say ‘make’, not ‘construct’; do’ not ‘perform’, or ‘so’ not ‘consequently.’
➡️ Plain English has a great list of alternative words (PDF).
➡️ You can still use beautiful and unusual words, just use them like seasoning in a recipe. If you overuse them, they lose their power.
4. Keep sentences short
Aim for no more than 25 words in a sentence. Fewer is usually better.
Chop out words like: just, never, always, actually, absolutely, really, completely, very, literally, genuinely, simply, only. You rarely need them.
➡️ Write a sentence. Now cut out as many words as you can without losing the meaning. Can you make it even shorter?
5. Cut the syllable count
Hemingway points out a lot of unnecessarily polysyllabic too-long words, though it won’t catch everything.
➡️ Can you say what you want to say, with just one-beat words? (Like this)
6. Keep paragraphs short
Aim for no more than 5 sentences in a paragraph. Fewer is usually better.
7. Use active voice
Active voice looks like: I love reading.
Passive voice looks like: reading is loved by me.
➡️ Tip: if you can add ‘by monkeys’ on the end, it’s passive voice. Swap it for active, whenever you can. (Obviously there are some exceptions. Passive voice is useful when you want to avoid blame, like saying “the rent hasn’t been paid”, not “you haven’t paid your rent”).
8. Be concrete
Can you use a concrete example to explain something abstract? It’s not dumbing down, it’s just clear.
➡️ Tell real stories, about real situations. Like this story about inflation, explained by eggs.
✨ For the word nerds
Can’t get enough of simple writing? Learn about plain language. It’s a type of clear and easy to follow writing, designed for some people who struggle with reading because of a disability or cognitive impairment. For a great example of plain language in action, check out this interactive from The Pudding.
Or try Analyze My Writing. It’s an AI tool that checks lexical density (how descriptive your writing is), how common or uncommon your words are, and creates Cloze tests (those weirdly fascinating readability tests that take words out of a piece of text, to see if readers can guess what should be there).
Swapping long words for short words just makes sense. George Orwell put it best, in his 1946 essay, Politics and the English Language. He said: “ Never use a long word where a short one will do.”
Permanent, temporary and situational impairments are a mainstay of accessibility thinking. I’m not sure who created these categories. It could have been Kat Holmes, in her time at Microsoft. Does anyone know?
Also, read Kat’s amazing book Mismatch: How Inclusion Shapes Design if you’re interested in accessibility and design!
The ‘by monkeys’ tip comes from Monzo’s wonderful tone of voice guidelines.
The recommendation to keep paragraphs short (5 sentences or fewer) and sentences short (25 words or fewer), comes from gov.uk.
*I’ve used identity-first language here (“are dyslexic”), not person-first (“have dyslexia”).
Not everyone agrees about which one to use, and that’s okay! We’ll dig into this in future articles.
The social model of disability is the idea that people are disabled by social systems, not by their physical, cognitive or motor disabilities or differences.
This graphic is not dyslexia-friendly. The patterned background, for example, makes it tricky to read. Many of the experiences listed here (like stomach ache) aren’t necessarily connected to dyslexia. Dyslexia presents in enormously varied ways, many of which aren’t captured here. For me, the main point here is: many of us think of dyslexia in narrow terms, and may assume dyslexic people are less capable. In other words, that’s a problem with our understanding of and support for dyslexia, and nothing to do with dyslexic people.
First published on https://fightingtalk.com/