How easy is this blog to read? Apparently, yesterday’s blog post, A lick of paint, is comfortable reading for 13 year old students – or grade 7. The previous post, Don’t blame marketing for a sexist society, is seemingly much harder for some readers, requiring a year 12 or college level education to decipher.
How do I know this? A little-known tool hidden within Microsoft Word that assesses readability according to the Flesch-Kincaid Readability Test (Wikipedia). By assessing a number of factors – including sentence length and the average amount of syllables per word – a complex calculation converts this into a score, interpreted as a US education grade level. I’m not going to deconstruct the formula here as it is covered in depth on the Wikipedia page, but it is a highly useful tool for writers who are serious about being read – and, more importantly, understood.
You might sound clever but what does it mean?
It niggles me that there is still a trend for ‘professional’ writing to be more complex and densely constructed. How many business letters do you receive that contain ridiculously long and convoluted sentences, with words that are unnecessarily long or archaic? It is almost as if some business writers – and lawyers are the worst offenders – actually prefer to hide their true meaning behind verbosity.
Then there are the aspiring authors, determined to prove their credentials by using an elitist vocabulary and impenetrable prose style in the mistaken belief that this reveals greater skill. But who will read it?
If a sentence has to be read twice to be understood, the problem is with the writer, not the reader – always. (Cue comments pointing out sentences within this post – yeah, yeah, very funny.)
Smarter writers understand that readability is the most important aspect of writing. Avoiding readability issues is like shouting, without any interest in being heard. A writer writes to be understood, not to show off linguistic dexterity. Consider your audience: if you are writing an academic piece, more detailed and dense language may be required to provide greater precision. If writing for a general readership – most of whom do not have a college education – a much lower readability level is needed.
Thankfully, as this blog is aimed at writers and marketers, I can assume you are not put off by certain words and grammatical constructions. But if I were a political speechwriter, aiming for a reading age of ten to thirteen may be more appropriate.
That doesn’t mean the speaker will sound dumb – far from it. Intelligence is contained within the message being conveyed, not the words used to convey it.
Switching on the readability report
To switch on the Flesch-Kincaid Readability feature in MS Word, follow these steps.
1. Go to ‘Tools’ and select ‘Options’.
2. Click the ‘Spelling & Grammar’ tab.
3. Check the box ‘Show readability statistics’.
4. Click ‘OK’.
Once enabled, whenever you use the Spelling and Grammar feature, on completion it will generate a short report on readability.
How smart are your readers?
It is easy to make assumptions about reading age, only to be surprised. I have always been exceptionally good with words, with a reading age consistently higher than my physical years or education level. Yet, I do have to remind myself that not everyone is as comfortable with reading as me, and there are certainly books, articles and documents available that still test even my comprehension skills.
Newspapers continue to report a decline in literacy standards, with more students graduating with extremely poor reading skills. We should not be creating further barriers to communication but instead providing access to more people, regardless of their education level. Time Magazine – certainly a respectable journal – has a reported readability score of around 52, equivalent to a normal high school education, but less than a college education. Readers Digest can easily be read by 13 year-olds. Newspapers, ideally, should be written at an eighth grade level according to Philip Meyer’s analysis of typical readership, but more often risk confusion by writing at a much higher level. This inability to write to suit their readers may have severe implications for the future, as newspaper sales decline.
Understanding readability is not about ‘dumbing down’. It isn’t even about lowering literacy levels or impeding creativity. It is merely about creating language that works. After all, would you buy a car that looked impressive but couldn’t get you home?
Incidentally, if you have read this post with ease, you have an equivalent reading standard to a Year 11 student. Just so you know.