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25 tips for writing effectively for older readers

Vera

Sarah Carr’s friend, Vera, celebrating her 100th birthday – when she was born in 1911, the UK had 102 centenarians; by 2013, it had 13,780.

Misleading information, unclear instructions, technical jargon and illegible print: these are all barriers that can stop older people accessing products and services. Apart from the obvious ethical problem – it is unacceptable for a civilised society to withhold important goods from citizens – it makes good business sense to value older consumers. The 65-plus age group represents 20% of the UK consumer population (those aged 16 and above) and is expected to rise to 25% by 20301.

As experts in written communication, members of the Society for Editors and Proofreaders (SfEP) are well equipped to help ensure that texts meet the needs of target readers. The SfEP is launching a three-tier commercial package for organisations targeting older consumers. Comprising a communications audit, editorial consultancy and in-house training, the project kicks off with the publication of a booklet on communicating with older readers. Drawing on research and anecdotal evidence gathered with the help of SfEP members and editors from other English-speaking countries, Sarah Carr presents in this blog a list of 25 top tips. For more ideas, and advice on how to implement these in your work, watch out for the booklet!

Attitude

  1. Do what you can to challenge attitudes towards ageing and older people.

Features of older people

  1. Understand the needs of older readers, remembering that they have widely varying abilities, and encompass two or even three generations.

Inclusive writing

  1. Take an inclusive approach to writing, suitable for all members of the public (sometimes known as ‘plain language’).

Purpose, content and structure

  1. Before you start writing, think about why you are doing so, what you want the text to achieve, and the best medium for this purpose.
  2. Plan your messages and ideas, ensuring they are clear and honest.
  3. Organise the content logically, using an appropriate structure and good navigational aids, and avoiding very long paragraphs.

Style and grammar: words and phrases

  1. Consider using graphics to help present your ideas.
  2. Omit redundant words, and use short, familiar words and phrases.
  3. Use jargon and abbreviations only when necessary, and explain each term when you first mention it.
  4. Ensure that you refer to people equally; failing to do so may not only offend readers (and so lose their attention) but also helps prolong inequality.

Style and grammar: sentences

  1. Ensure that you use good grammar, spelling and punctuation.
  2. Aim for an average sentence length of 15 to 20 words, with some longer and shorter for variety and effect.
  3. Use strong verbs (rather than nominalisations/deverbal nouns, e.g. ‘decide’, not ‘make a decision’).
  4. Favour active verbs (‘the team decided’, not ‘it was decided by the team’), writing in the first and second person (‘I’/‘we’ and ‘you’) and phrasing points positively.

Layout and design

  1. Use a simple, clear font, in sentence case, at a size of 12 to 14 point, avoiding italics and underlining.
  2. Align text to the left, with lines of a reasonable length, and avoid splitting words between lines.
  3. Use white space effectively, for example to help show the logical structure of your text.
  4. For text on paper, use good-quality paper with a matt finish, ensuring a good level of contrast between background and ink colours.
  5. Keep images clear and simple, ensuring they do not stereotype older people.

Writing for the web

  1. Ensure it is easy to understand the structure of your website, and to navigate around the site.
  2. Think about web-specific aspects of layout and design, and the readers’ familiarity with using computers and the internet.
  3. Include text alternatives, e.g. audio and video.

Checking the suitability of your text

  1. Aim for a reading-age level of 12 to 14 years, using a readability formula (available in Word).
  2. Consider testing your text on a real audience, if time and money allow, or otherwise using plain-English editors to provide an expert opinion.

Acquiring or commissioning the skills

  1. For a professional and cost-effective service, commission support from SfEP members. And don’t forget our specialist training courses and publications!

1 Analysis by the Personal Finance Research Centre at Bristol University quoted in Age UK (2010) Golden Economy: The Consumer Marketplace in an Ageing Society (research by ILC-UK).

Sarah CarrSarah Carr works as a writer, editor and proofreader, specialising in plain English and business communication. She feels strongly that our society should value old age and older people more, and is saddened by its mysterious obsession with youth. As a practical demonstration of her principles, she refuses to dye her (increasingly) grey hair!

Proofread by SfEP ordinary member Louise Lubke Cuss.

The views expressed here do not necessarily reflect those of the SfEP.

Computer tools for proofreaders

Computer tools for proofreaders

Computer tools for proofreadersThanks to continuing developments in computer technology, there are more and more tools available for editors, but is there any help for proofreaders? The short answer is yes. To start with, there are tools for on-screen mark-up of PDFs, but they only give you a more efficient ‘pen’ to put your mark-up on the ‘paper’. To see how computers can help more fundamentally, we need to think about what you, as a proofreader, actually do.

Obviously, you have to read every word of the text, to check that it conveys the author’s meaning properly. But you also have to watch out for all sorts of other things: spelling, punctuation, hyphenation, layout glitches, numbering, etc. And that’s just the words – there are also figures, pictures, tables, etc. to check.

You have a lot to think about as you read, and you can easily be distracted from the meaning of the text by the smaller, mechanical changes needed, or you can miss some of the mechanical changes while concentrating on the meaning. This is where using computer tools can help, because they are good at dealing with the routine changes so that you can concentrate on the communication of the author’s ideas. You can rely on the computer, knowing that it will work consistently, without being distracted by the phone or by the cat walking across your keyboard.

By ‘computer tools’ I’m talking about powerful programs that you can buy, such as PerfectIt, as well as the sort of pre-programmed macros that I use. Now, to many people a ‘macro’ is just ‘a shortcut to a task you do repeatedly’, to quote one website, but pre-programmed macros are far more powerful and versatile than that.

There are plenty of pre-programmed macros available, and you even can tailor them to your own way of working with very little programming knowledge – Jack Lyon’s Macro Cookbook is a very useful resource.

So, the main way that computer tools help me in proofreading is by analysing the text as a whole and alerting me to issues of (in)consistency, and they do so before I start to read. Am I the only person to have made a hyphenation decision (say, changing ‘non-linear’ to ‘nonlinear’) based on Chapters 1 and 2, only to find that Chapters 3 to 12 are consistently the other way round? What a waste of time! Do I undo my changes in Chapters 1 and 2, or persist in deleting all the hyphens from ‘non-linear’?

Now, I can’t tell you the ‘best’ way to use computer tools, because every job is different; proofreaders are all different too, in the way they like to work. And I certainly can’t give you unbiased advice, because the only tools I use are my own home-grown macros, but I hope I can give you an idea of what’s possible. Here are some areas where macros can provide aids to consistency – the macro names in italic will allow you to find details of them in my free book, Macros for Writers, Editors and Proofreaders:

• Hyphenation – HyphenAlyse provides a list of all the hyphenated words (or potentially hyphenated words, e.g. nonlinear) in a document, showing how often they appear as a hyphenated word, two words, or one word (e.g. sea-bed, sea bed or seabed).

• Proper nouns – ProperNounAlyse creates a list of proper noun pairs that could possibly be variant spellings of one another, and how often each occurs, e.g. Brinkman (3), Brinkmann (1).

• Spelling – With SpellingToolkit, you can create a copy of the document (in Word) with all the likely misspellings highlighted, and IStoIZ or IZtoIS will indicate all the -is/-iz inconsistencies, e.g. organise/organize.

• Other inconsistencies – DocAlyse creates a list of the frequency of other issues, such as inconsistencies in capitalisation, alternative spellings, and serial (or not) commas.

Other tools that can be used for proofreading include MatchBrackets, MatchSingleQuotes, MatchDoubleQuotes and AuthorDateFormatter.

Using these tools does take time and effort – both in learning how to do it, and also in implementing them on a given job – so only you can decide if it’s worthwhile. Certainly, the longer the job, the bigger the pay-back from the time spent in preparation.

But, regardless of the time saved, if these tools enable you to produce a better standard of work, it seems to me to be a good investment.

Members and associates of the Society for Editors and Proofreaders (SfEP) can find out more about macros on the SfEP discussion forums.

Which computer tools do you find most useful when proofreading?

Paul Beverley

Paul Beverley

At 65, Paul Beverley doesn’t want to retire – he finds freelance proofreading and editing far too enjoyable. He loves polishing text for optimum communication, and finds it very satisfying to use his programming skills to write macros that increase his own and other people’s efficiency and effectiveness. As an OAP with government support he can also cherry-pick his jobs – a great privilege.

 

Proofread by Jane Hammett, an advanced member of the SfEP.

The views expressed here do not necessarily reflect those of the SfEP.