Pros test their draft documents — with readers

Photo Credit: estherase via Compfight cc
Photo Credit: estherase via Compfight cc

Because pro writers recognize their limitations, they adopt practices designed to overcome them. One of those practices is testing a draft before delivering the final document. That’s why I highlighted the practice within my post: What is plain language? (Part Four: Putting It All Together in a Process).testing

There are lots of document quality testing methods. While the source is “aging,” Karen Schriver’s 1989 summary of methods is the best overview I’ve seen. She provides the figure shown below, which displays methods on a continuum from text-focused to expert-focused to reader-focused.

Schriver concluded,

When practical considerations such as time and expense allow, reader-focused methods are preferable to text-focused and expert-judgment-focused methods because they shift the primary job of representing the text’s problems from the writer or expert to the reader. Thus, reader-focused methods help minimize the chances of failing to detect problems. In addition, reader-focused methods expand the scope of text problems that get noticed, shifting the evaluator’s attention to global problems, especially problems of visual and verbal omissions.

So reader-focused methods are the best tests of document quality. Although reader testing can be expensive, cost is no reason to dismiss it. Jakob Nielsen made the argument convincingly in Guerrilla HCI: Using Discount Usability Engineering to Penetrate the Intimidation Barrier. Reader testing can be a simple as asking your actual reader to review a draft.

A while back, I promised a short video tutorial on reader testing. It’s on my list of to-do items for this summer . . . In the meantime, you can check out usability testing from the Center for Plain Language or user testing from the Nielsen Norman Group.

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  1. I find it remarkable that people such as Schriver advise on document testing (including clear writing and plain language) and then write in a style that’s so hard to read. The Schriver paragraph quoted goes off the scale on all conventional readability formulas.

    Nick Wright
    Designer of the StyleWriter – plain English copy-editing software

    1. I agree the quote from Schriver is in academic style. That’s because it appeared wiithin an article for experts reading a research journal. The notion there is ONE correct way to communicate is simply inaccurate. The key is to adapt your content, organization, and style for the context, most importantly, your audience. And Schriver can do that.

      For example, on Health Literacy Out Loud, Schriver said:

      “People are attracted primarily to contrast, which is one of the key visual principles that has been studied by researchers again and again. Contrast is created by differences in light and dark, thick and thin, big and small. For example, headings that are bolder than the text, pictures that are big in relation to small pictures. And readers will scan the text for those things that jump out at them. If everything is the same hue or the same shade of grey, then nothing will jump out. That sort of disempowers people and they don’t want to keep going.”

      Her communication in this instance is more plain because she’s addressing a more general audience.

  2. Even the example you give of Schriver writing in ‘more plain English’ is not a good example of plain English. It’s full of passive verbs, wordy sentences and redundant phrases. Here’s a plain English redraft:

    Research shows people like contrast. Differences in light and dark, think and thin, big and small all help in document design. For example, make your headings bolder than the text; make your pictures both big and small. Readers will scan the text for anything that jumps out at them. If everything is the same shade of grey, nothing will jump out. Lack of contrast will stop people reading.

    Nick Wright
    Designer of the StyleWriter – plain English copy-editing software

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