Academics are not known for their ability to write readable and accessible text. It’s not something that most of us are trained to do, we deal in difficult and complex theories and concepts, and for the most part, we write for carbon-copies of ourselves – other academics typically working in our subject area, largely familiar with similar ideas and writing within certain disciplinary conventions. Intentionally or otherwise (I am convinced that a few of us out there are still labouring under the misapprehension that using long words makes us look clever!), we obfuscate and we waffle.
To illustrate this point, try to read and comprehend a journal paper written in a subject area quite different than your own. See? Now you get it!
If we’re aiming to effectively communicate to ‘lay’ audiences, we need to ensure the text we produce is accessible. No excuses. This is not ‘dumbing-down’. This is about communicating complex ideas in an engaging and readable style. There is quite an art to and a whole lot of skill in writing accessible text with a target non-specialist audience in mind. Museum professionals are super-skilled in this respect So, let’s look to that field (which happens to be my own) for some hints and tips. But first …
What does readable and accessible text look like?
Well, this quote from the Victoria & Albert Museum’s (V&A) ‘Guide to Writing Gallery Text’ (Trench 2013: 1), does a really good job of summarising the compelling reasons for producing both physically and intellectually-accessible text and what it looks like:
To write gallery text that is interesting, engaging and accessible for a wide audience is difficult but not impossible. In doing so, we do not have to ‘dumb down’ our scholarship and collections. Instead, we have to recognise people’s needs and interests, and use the devices of good writing to communicate our ideas. By good writing, we do not simply mean clarity and correct grammar. To appeal to readers and visitors, text also needs personality, life and rhythm.
In short, accessible text:
- meets the needs of different potential audiences – perhaps you have a key audience in mind (say, GCSE pupils or adult learners) – but perhaps you don’t;
- is concise and to the point;
- assumes no prior knowledge but doesn’t patronise;
- is ‘readable’ (more about the specific readability ‘rules’ below); and
- is authoritative but friendly and approachable.
The aforementioned V&A Gallery Text Guide provides examples of good and not-so-good gallery text. These are worth a look to get a sense of what well-crafted readable and accessible text looks like, even if you’re not writing for an exhibition or display context. Which brings me to …
My top 10 tips and hints (presented in no particular order of importance)
1. Select an easy-to-read font
Use a sans serif font … always. Why? Well, according to the Smithsonian Institution (n.d.), simple fonts without frills and furbelows are most readable, especially for people with low vision and specific learning disabilities. Stands to reason really. Depending on the context, you could always create a bit of interest by using a couple of different fonts in your text. Just make sure they’re sans serif!
2. Make sure your font is of sufficient size and weight
The font (type) size will depend on the sort of material that you’re aiming to produce and the context in which it will be read. You’ll need to use a differently-sized font for a piece of text in a book or a leaflet than you will for a pop-up banner or display panel. And you may use different sizes and weights for headings and subheadings, where appropriate. There is plenty of guidance online about selecting a size and weight of font for different purposes. But, as a guide, the Smithsonian Institute (n.d.: 24) gives the following pointers for exhibition text:
- At a viewing distance of less than 75 mm, make sure the type is at least 4.5mm/point size 24
- A viewing distance of around 1m requires type of 9mm/point size 48
- Two metres, 19/100
- – and three metres, 28/148
AND DON’T TYPE IN CAPS … if you must, save it for headings.
3. Make sure there is sufficient contrast between the text and the background
This is a key accessibility consideration, otherwise the text may be very difficult for people with low vision and/or colour blindness to read. Dark text on a light background is best in this respect, but light text on a dark background also works. This doesn’t mean that you can’t use interesting colour schemes. You just need to make sure there’s sufficient contrast between the text and the background. Sounds tricky, right? Thankfully, there’s a handy online tool to help you master high-low contrast: the WebAim contrast-checker tool.
4. Don’t right-justify your text
Yes, I know you think it looks ‘neater’, but it makes the text much more difficult to read. And never, never centre justify the text. According to the Smithsonian Institution (n.d.: 24):
A predictable beginning point, line after line, and evenly spaced words are much easier to read for people with low vision and for people with cognitive disabilities.
So now you know.
5. Use active language and avoid passive voice where possible
Simply because it’s more immediate and interesting to read. You’re having a conversation with the reader rather than lecturing them. As Trench (2013: 36) puts it:
Why say ‘Tea and porridge were taken at breakfast’ when you could say ‘People had
tea and porridge for breakfast’? The active is more human, real and dynamic. If you look in newspapers – any newspaper, from the Daily Mail to the Financial Times – you will find paragraph after paragraph with no passives.
6. Organise the information hierarchically
Here’s an approach I took when writing and editing text for a recent exhibition project.
- Paragraph 1 presented the primary message, the key ‘thing’ we wanted to get across to visitors. This was in bold and was designed to focus visitors’ attention. We understood that it may be the only part of the text that visitors might read before moving on. You can’t make people stand and read absolutely everything in the depth you would like. This isn’t just because people are inherently lazy. Many people, including those with low vision or specific learning disabilities, may find reading really quite tiring. So, it’s sensible (and empathic) to get your key message in early. To the same ends, you could instead provide a two or three line summary of the content.
- Paragraphs 2 and 3 gave secondary messages and detail.
- Tertiary messages – information that was interesting but not essential – were typically given in image captions, helping to contextualise the image and explaining its significance.
7. Avoid long, complex sentences that run on and on and on and on …
My PhD supervisor once advised me that shorter sentences are punchier are more impactful. They are also much more difficult to write. It takes practice. Believe me, I am a big fan of adjectives. I mean, why use one when three will do! It’s a bad habit and one to break if you want to master effective communication. Simply put, shorter sentences are easier to read and comprehend. The Smithsonian Institution (n.d.: 17) recommends sentences of no more than 15-25 words max.
A good tip that we can all benefit from, regardless of what we’re writing, is to read the text out loud. This helps us to identify incidences of clumsy syntax, missing punctuation and overly loooooooooooong sentences. Another readability-boosting tip from the Smithsonian (n.d.: 17) is to keep to a maximum of around 55 characters per line.
And don’t forget about word count. Get across what you want and need to say as precisely and concisely as possible (this is where editing and testing come in – see #9 below). Get down to the bare bones and excise the waffle.
8. Use the Hemingway app (or similar)
For several writing projects, I’ve made use of a brilliant online app called Hemingway. This handy tool helps users to edit and adapt a piece of written text to improve its readability by reading age (as a guide, in the UK, museums typically craft their text to meet a reading age of 12). The app highlights long, overly complex sentences, gives hints on shorter words to replace long ones and marks incidences of passive voice, adverbs, and ‘weakening phrases’, such as overly descriptive passages, subjective qualifiers and redundant words.
And no, the people behind Hemingway haven’t paid me to give such a glowing review of their product. I genuinely think it’s brilliant.
9. Edit your text
Typically, museum text goes through several iterations during the exhibition development process and is seen and read by a number of people within the institution and beyond. It may also be tested (front-end evaluated) with users and potential audiences (see #10 below). You should make sure your text goes through the same process of reading and editing!
10. Test your text
Last but not least, make sure your text is seen by several pairs of eyes other than your own. Preferably, these peepers will belong to people from your target audience. This is not just about proofreading (although that is, of course, essential). It’s about testing the accessibility and readability of what you’ve written. Accept and act on criticism with good grace. And remember, you are not writing for yourself or your peers in academia.
References and further reading
For more information and advice, have a look at:
Section 2 of Bitgood, S. 2014. Engaging the Visitor: Designing Exhibits that Work‘. MuseumsEtc.
De-Jargonizer [a tool for analysing the amount of inaccessible jargon in your writing]. 2019. http://scienceandpublic.com/, accessed 4 April 2019.
Trench, L. 2013. ‘Gallery text at the V&A: A Ten Point Guide’. http://www.vam.ac.uk/__data/assets/pdf_file/0009/238077/Gallery-Text-at-the-V-and-A-Ten-Point-Guide-Aug-2013.pdf, accessed 4 April 2019.
Smithsonian Institution, n.d. ‘Smithsonian Guidelines for Accessible Exhibition Design’. https://www.si.edu/Accessibility/SGAED, accessed 4 April 2019.
So, early career and not so early career academics – would you be interested in more content around writing for and engaging non-specialist audiences? How about a short online course with practical exercises and one-to-one support? Let me know what you think by leaving a comment below!
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