|Audio-visual Communication Handbook (Peace Corps, 1989, 134 p.)|
Writing is considered more readable when the intended audience can understand its meaning. Scholars of readability have isolated three interrelated factors (word choice, sentence length, sentence structure! which contribute to the ease of understanding.
A general rule to follow is "use familiar words." In some countries, writers have developed vocabulary lists based on words an audience uses in everyday talk. Such a list may number only 500 to 700 words. The list can be developed by tape recording conversations as people go about their daily work in the home, the field, or the market place. It's surprising how many things can be written with only 700 words to choose from'
When unfamiliar words are used, the reader or viewer should be helped to learn their meaning. Meaning can be taught by definition, by association, by example or through context. Concrete words can be defined rather easily by pictures - a visual definition. Words with pictures can provide meaning through association.
Abstract words and ideas may need to be defined by giving examples. These examples also can supply the context from which meaning is derived. In many cultures, "good health" may be an abstract term. Pictorial examples contrasting good with poor health could provide the context for learning what good health is. Such visuals might show a well-rounded, sturdy body in contrast to a swollen belly and spindly arms and legs; lustrous-looking skin free from sores versus wrinkled, dried, sore infested skin; glowing, alert eyes in contrast to red, watery eyes.
Long sentences are more likely to be misunderstood than shorter ones. Long sentences usually contain more ideas. The reader not only has to sort out the important ideas, but also must relate them. Breaking long sentences into shorter ones forces the writer, rather than the reader, to do the sorting and relating. Note in the leaflet, Beware of Burns, the shortness of most sentences. Also, look at the sentences in the narration for More Yams for Hamra.
Short sentences are particularly important in recorded or spoken narrations because the listener must get meaning through listening, and he may have only one opportunity to listen.
How long should sentences be? There are no set rules, only rules of thumb. For newly literate adults, an average sentence length of eight to ten words has been suggested. Average sentence length means just that an average based on the total number of words in a passage divided by the total number of sentences in the passage. This paragraph, for example, has an average sentence length of about 15 words.
Not all short sentences are easy to understand, but this is generally so.
Variety in sentence structure tends to make writing more interesting. A question can recapture the reader's or viewer's wandering attention. Emphasize an important point by asking a question about it. An exclamation is an emphatic. Use it to punctuate an important point. An imperative directs attention. That's what imperatives are-directives! In visual-verbal media, try sentence fragments. Let the picture identify the object visually, the word name it. After reading this paragraph, note the sentences - short in length, varied in structure.
More personalized writing tends to make it more interesting. Either real or simulated conversation or dialog gives a personalized touch. Note in the narration of More Yams for Hamra the simulated conversation and dialog. If, in taping the narration, more than one voice could be used, real rather than simulated dialog would result. The personalizing quality of dialog is one reason why drama so involves an audience. As previously mentioned, the puppet show is a most effective medium for simple dramatizations.
Complicated structure tends to make sentences more difficult to understand. The structure acts as a mask to meaning. The mask may be in the form of parenthetical expressions, subordinating clauses, or excessive amounts of descriptive phrases and clauses.
Often, sentence structures can be simplified by taking out unnecessary words, or deleting unimportant parenthetical expressions. If important, they should be put into separate sentences. For example: Farmers, particularly those filling poor soils, can increase crop yields by using fertilizers.
To simplify, re-write as two sentences: Farmers can increase crop yields by using fertilizers. For farmers tilling poor soils, fertilizing is a must.
In the leaflet example, Beware of Burns, the sentence about COAL has a complicated structure. Such a sentence should be tested by having someone representative of the audience read it for meaning, particularly for a spoken narration.
Written materials should be interesting to read or to listen to as well as readable or listenable. The writer's task is to strive for balance between simplicity and interest.