How readable is your writing?

Photo credit: Nina Jean

According to a recent study by The Literary Project, 50% of Americans cannot read a book written at the 8th grade level. 45 million Americans (about 14%) cannot read at a 5th grade reading level.

Unlike the average American, you’re likely fairly literate, after all you’re reading an obscure self improvement article. If you are smart, you probably write with a fair amount of sophistication. But is your writing too sophisticated?

How do you ensure that you’re not writing above the reading level of your target audience?

Can we score readability?

Readability is not about dumbing down your writing, it’s about ease of comprehension. I’ve interviewed my fair share of writers and so many of the writing samples I’ve seen are unnecessarily complex. It’s as if they think “being a writer” means “using a lot of extraneous words” rather than trying to convey a message clearly & succinctly.

Can we score readability? The short answer is yes, there are quite a few algorithms to do just this. The most famous & most reliable is the Flesch-Kincaid readability test.

This algorithm was created in 1943 by Rudolf Flesch, and then revised in 1975 by J. Peter Kincaid. It’s used in the military to ensure instruction manuals can be read by the average soldier. Several states have passed laws requiring this test be used to score insurance policies — they must be written at a level a high school graduate can understand.

The basic formula takes into account factors like average sentence and word length. As simple as this sounds, according to a 2006 study, it has a 0.91 correlation with reading comprehension, so it’s actually a fairly reliable way to score your writing.

Researchers and dilettantes often have a lot of fun scoring things like Harry Potter books to see if there’s any correlation between book sales & readability. They also like running this algorithm on political candidates in a misguided attempt to judge the intelligence of each.

Is your writing smarter than a 5th grader?

I still have my copy of Rudolf Flesch’s The Art of Readable Writing (1949), the pages now yellow from age — optional reading for one of my university advertising courses. You may notice a certain similarity between the book’s author and the readability score mentioned above.

If you don’t feel like reading this book (though I promise it’s fairly readable), then the next best thing might be to continually score your writing on the readability scale. Over time and with practice, you’ll start writing more comprehensibly.

That said, don’t make the mistake of thinking a low score makes for better sales copy — sometimes technical terms are required, and never underestimate the intelligence of your audience. Ernest Hemingway wrote at a 4th grade reading level, but never underestimated his reader.

I’ve included the Flesch–Kincaid grade level in my Amazon Keyword Optimizer tool. The score is more accurate on longer sections of text, so take your score with a grain of salt, but with practice you should be able to avoid the pitfalls of run-on sentences and overly complex verbiage.

Further Tips For Readable Writing

One of the best ways to ensure that what you’re writing is readable is to give it to someone else to read — aloud. The less they know about the topic, the better. Pay attention to where they stumble or slow down or re-read for comprehension. These are the things that need to be fixed.

If you don’t have someone at hand, then go do something else for a while, and then come back and re-read your own text aloud, or at least in your head. Reading your own writing aloud can help you avoid some rather awkward sentences.

Sometimes it helps to “write” in your head and then sit down at the keyboard. It also helps to write with a specific person in mind. This often leads to more conversational — and readable — writing.

This article has 41 sentences, with 663 words (16.17 per sentence) with 1.53 syllables per word and is written at an 8th grade reading level.

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