One rule of thumb when writing to the masses is that most of them read at about a sixth to eighth grade reading level. While the majority of Americans and others developed countries are literate, the levels of reading ability can vary wildly.
Imagine the diversity of your reading audience. The first person who visits your site may read at a college level and understand big words, but the next site visitor may need a dictionary to understand what you're talking about. This is frustrating and in the online world, where people want immediate information, the chances of a reader taking the time to go look up an unfamiliar word is fairly slim. Instead, you'll simply lose a reader.
Not only is it important to watch the reading level of your writing, but you'll also want to make sure that it is easy to read. Word's readability statistics is one way to ensure your articles are ones that will not only capture the attention of all your readers, but will keep their focus.
Writing to Persuade and Inform
Even if your reading audience is sophisticated, that doesn't mean your writing should be difficult to read. The goal with most forms of writing is to persuade or inform. However, it can sometimes be difficult to put yourself in your reader's shoes.
Just because you know the meaning of a word, for example, doesn't mean your readers will immediately understand. You can figure out just how readable your text is with several different methods.
One of the fastest ways to see how your writing is resonating with your readers is to simply ask them. You can do this by:
- Installing poll plugins on your WordPress blog. Simply ask if the articles were easy to read. Yes or no.
- Asking for comments in the comments section. This is a good idea because readers can provide specific details.
- Gather a group of your regular readers and ask them to read a couple of your more recent articles and provide feedback about how readable they are.
- Hire a professional editor to look at your articles and give you some pointers for making them more readable.
There is a nifty online tool called Paper Rater that I sometimes use to double-check my articles, particularly if I am tired when writing or on a fast deadline that doesn't allow for as much editing as I'd normally engage in. Paper Rater does the following:
- Checks the education level. You can set the education level from first grade all the way through graduate school.
- Checks for originality. This can be helpful if you are editing someone else's work and not sure if it is plagiarized.
- Checks for spelling and grammar errors. If your article is filled with errors, that can impact readability.
Best of all? Paper Rater is free in its basic version. If you want an ad-free version, you can invest in the Premium Paper Rater.
Word's Readability Stats
More than likely, you are already using Word's spell check option. However, you can also enable Flesch Reading Ease and Flesch-Kincaid Grade Level scores in Microsoft Word.
Turn it on by following the directions below. These directions will work for MS Word 10 and MS Word 2013.
- Open Word
- Click on File
- Click on Options (see image below)
- Once the new screen options, click on “Proofing” on the left side (see image below).
- Under the section titled “When correction grammar and spelling with Word”, you need to check two boxes.
- First, check the box next to “Check grammar with spelling.” This box must be checked for you to enable readability statistics.
- Next, check the box next to “Show readability statistics.”
- Click the “OK” box.
Now, whenever you perform a spell check, you'll get a pop-up at the end that gives you your readability statistics.
Understand Flesch Reading Ease and Flesch-Kincaid Grade Level
The Flesch-Kincaid grade level score is fairly self-explanatory. You'll notice in the sample above that the text is at a 9.3 or third month of ninth grade year. To get this text to eighth grade level, where I want to be, I can simply remove the word “exquisite” which takes it to an 8.8 score.
Now, understanding the Flesch Reading Ease score is a little harder, but not too difficult. Microsoft explains this reading score in detail on the [icon link] Microsoft support site.
The site states:
This test rates text on a 100-point scale. The higher the score, the easier it is to understand the document. For most standard files, you want the score to be between 60 and 70.
The formula for the Flesch Reading Ease score is:
206.835 – (1.015 x ASL) – (84.6 x ASW)
The score is based on the length of sentences and the difficulty of words. If you find that your score is too high or too low, start first with the words. Word's built-in thesaurus function can help you choose a different word to use if you think one is too difficult or too simple. Next, work on breaking up long sentences into two smaller ones or cutting a few unnecessary words.
Why Is Readability Important?
In an article on Boasting Biz, Miguel Mendez talks about today's hectic, information driven world. People are busy. They read an untold number of documents each day. Think about it. People read documents for work, to learn new things, for pleasure, to help their kid with homework, and on and on it goes.
Because people want to absorb information fast, readability has become more important than ever before. Readers want to be able to absorb information and skim over content.
In addition to using tight, easy to read words, Mendez also recommends keeping paragraphs shorter. This information makes sense when you realize that about 64% of Americans now own a smart phone, according to Pew Internet Research. People on mobile devices have a smaller screen and don't like to scroll.
Your content will translate to mobile devices better if you:
- Keep sentences short.
- Keep paragraphs short.
- Add bullet points.
- Make your writing skimable.
There has been a lot of buzz recently that Google's next upgrade will look at how mobile friendly sites are when ranking them. If you have easy to read and skimable text, your site will immediately be more mobile friendly. Of course, there is a lot more to it than that, but readability is a good place to start.
Image Captions for Better Readability
Did you know you can make text more readable by utilizing image captions? Condense difficult concepts into short captions.
- Add statistics to a caption
- Use a quote that adds to the article but you don't really have room for
- Add big ideas or definitions of words the reader might not know
Back in November, Google revealed that they have a new tool that auto-captions images. That may mean that one day the alt tag will be a thing of the past, but the caption will still be important. For now, though, go ahead and add your alt tags. This is still an unproven technique.
Set Readability on Autopilot
While readability is important, don't spend so much time on it that you neglect other tasks, like promoting your sites on social media.
Instead, set your readability stats in Word, keep in mind that some of your readers may have a lower grade reading level and then do what you should be doing anyway – write excellent content readers will find valuable.