Content and Copy
Why is it that some blogs and articles get read and shared while others are just ignored and get lost in the shuffle? The answer is simple. Readability. It doesn’t matter if you have the slickest, most eye-catching website on the internet if your copy is hard to understand you canbe certain that it will fall flat on its face. But just what is readability and how can you put it to work for you?
According to our friends at Wikipedia, readability is “the ease with which text can be read and understood.” It’s a simple enough but when it comes to quantifying readability and scoring a text things get much more complicated. The history of readability scoring and formulas is fascinating and goes back almost to the origin of writing itself but, for our purposes, we’ll focus solely on the model that is the gold standard for readability testing: the Flesch formulas.
Way back in 1943, Rudolf Flesch, published his doctoral dissertation entitled Marks of a Readable Style that included a formula meant to determine the difficulty of reading material for adults. The formula scored a text on a scale of 0 to 100 which roughly corresponded to grade levels with an ease of reading score of 0 being equivalent to 12th grade comprehension and 100 being 4th grade level.
Publishers soon discovered that following the Flesch formula increased readership by up to 60 percent and the use of readability scores became commonplace in journalism and writing of all types. The last 70 years have seen a number of refinements and changes to the tests but the benefits to be gained by using them are just as great today as they were in the 1950s.
How to Use a Readability Test to Write Better
There are a number of great online readability testers that allow you to copy and paste your text for scoring. One of my favorites can be found here, is easy to use and gives results that require little interpretation. As a former philosophy major I understand exactly what it means to write text that is abstruse and unkind to the reader and, at the beginning of my professional life, paid dearly for it. I can only imagine how much easier my life would have been if someone had introduced me to the concept of readability scoring then so I’m doing you all the favor now.
One caveat though: when using online, computer-based scoring programs you do need to be aware of their limitations. A great post by Matt Fenwick on uxmastery.com gives some examples of why you always need to proof your copy and be wary of accepting readability scores sight unseen. For example:
“I stared at the television” v “I stared at the quincunx.”
Here, ‘Television’ actually has more syllables, and so, would make a text harder to understand according to most readability formulas. But ‘television’ is understood by everyone over the age of two, while not many people need a Latin word for a group of five objects (file ‘quincunx’ under ‘may be useful someday’).
See what I mean? As of yet there is no perfect reading robot but who knows what time will bring. SO, what is my readability score for today’s piece? According to https://readability-score.com it is a miserable 58.1. In general I try to aim for scores of 70 and above but, if only for the sake of education, I’ll leave this version and post an edited copy of this post at a later date to show you how to make the necessary change to push the number up.