Welcome to the third article in our series on readability, which deals in assumptions.

Assumptions are an oft maligned—but nonetheless useful and necessary—part of making writing more readable. The key is to make informed assumptions that aid readability rather than reduce it.

Let’s walk through some different types of assumptions that writers make, and then finish with some tips for making good ones.

Making Fundamental Assumptions

You start to assume the moment you write your first word. Why? Because you’re assuming the reader is fluent in the language you wrote that word in. By the end of your first sentence, you’ve already relied on several other grammatical and linguistic assumptions about punctuation and pronunciation.

It’s especially important for writers to be sensitive to these fundamental assumptions because it’s easy to go on autopilot and overlook them. For example, writers working in English may forget about English as a Second Language speakers because they forget that English isn’t everyone’s primary language (1).

Making Valid Assumptions

Valid assumptions are based on what you know about your audience—and what they may already know about your topic. If you’re writing a beginning textbook for cooking, you might define the word mince the first time you use it. If you’re writing a more advanced textbook, you may be less obliged to do so. Both of these are valid assumptions based on the knowledge of the audience.

Making Incorrect or Negative Assumptions

Incorrect or negative assumptions typically come from a lack of forethought about one’s audience. The cookbook author in the above example could just as easily assume that mince is a common enough word that it doesn’t need to be defined. However, if you don’t fully define it, the amateur chef may well end up dicing or chopping instead, leading to undercooked potatoes.

Language (especially English) is riddled with these conceptual tangles, and both writers and editors need to correct for them before they confuse their audience.

Improving Assumptions

Here are three ways you can make good assumptions about your audience:

  • Do your research. Knowing who the audience is, and what they already know or expect, is half the readability battle.
  • Solicit feedback. As stated above, a substantive edit of a piece of writing includes the identification and resolution of invalid, distracting, or confusing assumptions. Such edits are highly beneficial for readability and are a necessary part of the writing process.
  • Practice writing. These things take practice. As you write for the same audience multiple times, you’ll become increasingly familiar with the best ways to communicate with them.

Keep an eye out for the fourth and final installment of our series on readability, which will summarize some of the algorithms used to mathematically assess readability.