The Byrne Blog

John Byrne Communicating About Communications

There’s science behind writing?  Who knew?  Did you?  Turns out, I have stumbled upon a way to measure how readable my writing is.  And yours, too.

Actually, there are two tests, and they’re related, and not just by name.  One is called the Flesch Reading Ease test and the other is the Flesch-Kincaid Grade Level test.  According to Wikipedia, these tests were developed by the military in the 1970s as a way to determine how easy its technical manuals were to read.  As you can imagine, people with all sorts of educational backgrounds signed up to serve after the draft ended; technical manuals needed to be written in such a way to account for those different reading levels.

In learning more about the tests, I think the reading ease test has more relevance to writers because it assigns a specific score instead of a grade level, which I would find to be more variable over time.  I also have found this really nifty tool that you can use to measure how easy or hard your writing is to understand.

The reading ease test involves some fancy mathematical analysis that is way beyond my comprehension (“I was told there would be no math.”).   But, as far as I understand it, it divides total words by total sentences and then subtracts some factor of total syllables divided by total words, carry the 9 and multiply by pi.  Or something like that.  In the end, the lower the score for your writing, the harder it is to read.

What the scale means

A readability score of 120 is something straight out of Dr. Seuss.  Each sentence is a couple of words, preferably one syllable apiece, and each paragraph is only a sentence or two.   Writing that scores in the 90-100 range means that the average middle-schooler should understand without any difficulty.  Scores in the 60-70 would be understood by a high school sophomore or junior, and scores below 30 would require some kind of bachelor’s degree or beyond.

Apparently, someone decided to see how Marcel Proust’s prose would fair.  Not well, it turns out.  He wins the hardest-to-read award, with some of his passages coming in at negative 500.  And yes, that would be the English translation.

French authors from the 19th Century aside, most of us just want to be understood as writers, am I right?  So I decided to put myself to the test.  How hard is my blog writing to understand?  Turns out, not very.  I’m just barely smarter than a 5th grader, with most of my posts coming in between 70-80 on the Flesch scale.  I can live with that.  I love being accessible to the masses, and my journalism teachers always said I was trying to write to a middle-school audience…

Me and Seth

How about some other bloggers?  Let’s test Seth Godin, a renowned marketing guru.  Well, turns out, he and I have something in common in that his blog, aptly named “Seth’s blog” churns out entries that score in the 70s.  Woo hoo!  Someday people will worship what I have to say.  Maybe.  (Well, probably not. But a guy can dream, right?)

What about others?  Well, the New York Times editorials seem to be averaging in the high 40s, with an occasional spike into the low 50s.  Not surprisingly, People.com stories were in the high 70s and 80s, with the exception of the “serious” stories about celebrities’ relatives dying or some actress getting a restraining order from an ex-boyfriend.  No lie.

Of course, I had to test a law firm’s content.  So why not pick on the biggest firm in the world, DLA Piper, right?  Hopping on their website, I tested the four latest publications they posted.  Here were the scores:  21, 34.7, 40.2 and 38.3.  Not really targeting the masses, are they?  But not exactly Proust, either.

OK, so what?

Is this anything more than a fun little parlor trick?  Absolutely, yes.  If you’re writing for consumers of information, most of whom don’t have a lot of time, you need to make things easy to understand.  Period.  Extraneous words and explanations can be left to the disclaimers or detail pages.  If you’re blogging, why wouldn’t you want to have your writing be the most accessible it can be without sacrificing your style or quality?

At the end of the day, the Flesch tests are another arrow in your writing quiver.  If you think you’re being obtuse, use the measuring tool.  Conversely, if you think you’re dumbing something down, get a reading on it to confirm.  This is one of the advantages of living in the age of the Internet, so why not?

By the way, in case you’re wondering, the score for this blog post is 77.4.   You can definitely read this.

*  *  *

How about you?  Have you ever used a tool like this to measure how well your writing translates to the masses?  Let me know in the comments.  Or, do you think you’d use this tool ever?  Why or why not (don’t I sound like an exam there)?  Until tomorrow…

2 thoughts on “Can You Read This? Here’s the Science Behind Making Your Writing More Readable

  1. John, I love both of these writing tools / tests. Both are available in Microsoft Word, which will display a document’s readability stats after spellchecking your document. To turn on this Word function, click: File / Options / Proofing / Show readability statistics.

    Voila!

    1. John Byrne says:

      Thanks, Ann! I never knew that it was there! Definitely something I’m going to turn on… All this time, I’ve been cutting and pasting into the other online tool I linked to. Now I can be more efficient! 🙂

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