How Readability Sharpens Your Copy and Delights Your Reader

readability

We live in a world of emojis, text shorthand, and shaky talk-to-type software. Half my conversations on Tinder send me to Urban Dictionary to look up a new abbreviation.

OMG.

This is where crusty old guys like me tell those damn millennials to get off my lawn.

Readability is a measure of how easily someone else can understand your writing. Low readability doesn’t just rankle my inner grouch. It rankles my inner journalist.

I was a sportswriter for a daily newspaper for most of my 20s. That meant cranking out clean, readable copy on tight deadlines late into the night.

I was pretty good at it, but I had a secret ally in my war against bad copy. I leaned heavily on readability metrics – and you should too.

But First, Spelling and Grammar Check

Maybe we’re used to our smartphones correcting typos. Maybe we’re overly reliant on red underlining of spelling errors.

Whatever the reason, we don’t regularly check our spelling and grammar when we’re done writing. That’s just crazy.

Spelling and grammar check is built right into most word processors and it can be added as an extension to most web browsers.

Get on it, people!

Readability Metrics: Sharper Copy, Happier Readers

Now that we have basic spelling and grammar out of the way, let’s talk about readability.

I’m most familiar with the amazing readability metrics delivered by Microsoft Word and Outlook, so I’ll be focusing on those here.

You’ll find similar stats in other tools, from the Yoast SEO plugin for WordPress to the Hemingway App for your desktop or web browser (the personal favorite of The DRIVE editor Shannon Willoby).

1. Characters Per Word and More

When it comes to readability, simple is better. If you have a 20-word sentence, it should almost certainly be split in two. If you have a 15-character word, you might be using jargon or you might just be showing off.

Microsoft breaks down your writing in terms of sentences per paragraph, words per sentence, and characters per word. What are the right averages for you? Well, it depends.

Once I broke my strict adherence to journalistic standards, my personal style became rather casual and breezy. So, my averages tend to be pretty low.

For example, this article has 1.7 sentences per paragraph, 11.6 words per sentence, and 4.6 characters per word.

2. Passive Sentence Percentage

In an active sentence, the subject acts upon something. In a passive sentence, the subject is acted upon.

  • Active: Jennifer sold the sock monkey.
  • Passive: The sock monkey was sold by Jennifer.

Unless quoting Yoda you are, passive sentences should be avoided.

See? Isn’t that annoying? It’s clearer to state you should avoid passive sentences rather than passive sentences should be avoided.

Passive sentences may seem like a minor offense, but they can really muddy your copy if you’re not careful. So, keep your passive sentence percentage low – like 5% low.

3. Flesch Reading Ease and Flesch-Kincaid Grade Level

The Flesch Reading Ease test rates text on a 100-point scale. The higher the score, the better the readability. Microsoft recommends a score between 60 and 70 for most writing projects.

Personally, Flesch Reading Ease always felt a little abstract to me.

I prefer the Flesch-Kincaid Grade Level test, which rates text on a U.S. school grade level. For example, a score of 8.0 means that an eighth grader can easily understand the writing.

Here, Microsoft recommends a score of around 7.0 or 8.0. When I was in newspapers, I aimed for a 6.0 or 7.0. This article is a 7.2.

I must think more highly of you than the average newspaper reader. 🙂

How to Test for Readability

I’ve just told you how amazing Microsoft’s readability tool is. Would you believe that the tool isn’t already active when you load Word onto your machine? Sad.

Here’s how to activate it. Each version of Word is slightly different, but these instructions should get you there… or close.

  1. Click the File tab, then click Options, then click Proofing.
  2. Under When correcting spelling and grammar in Word, make sure the Check grammar with spelling check box is selected.
  3. Select Show readability statistics.

Voila! Whenever you complete a spelling and grammar check in the future, Word will display readability metrics and you can edit accordingly.

That will make this old man and former journalist very happy.

What’s your go-to readability tool?

About the Author

Matt Simpson

Matt is a freelance writer for The DRIVE blog with expertise in digital marketing, social media, and copywriting. He's active in the #yesphx startup movement and has been recognized by AdWeek, Mashable, and more for digital innovation. Visit Matt's website or follow Matt on Twitter.

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