Readability is a measure of how easy it is to read and understand written text.
The easier something is to read, people are more likely to comprehend your message and enjoy reading the document. Plus, it simply takes less time to understand plain writing. People are busy and have short attention-spans, so you have to convey information quickly before they lose interest.
The MarComm Team considers the Flesch-Kincaid Grade Level and Flesch Reading Ease as the standard formulas for our campus. We expect content to score within the following ranges:
- Flesch-Kincaid Grade Level: 7-9th grade
- Flesch Reading Ease: 60 or higher
For instance, this article gets a readability score of 7.9. You’ll need about an 8th grade education to easily understand it.
Tips for Better Readability
It can be surprisingly tough to write highly readable content—especially when you are used to writing in an academic setting. But with practice, you’ll start noticing the common readability pitfalls in your writing and be able to avoid them.
Here are ways to make content more readable.
1. Use shorter sentences
Sentences with more than 20 syllables are scored as long sentences and hurt readability scores. Breaking up long sentences is any easy way to improve readability and add variety to your text.
2. Avoid using helping verbs & passive voice
If you are struggling with long sentences, watch out for strings of helping verbs like “will have been” or “may have been able”. Often these phrases can be shortened to save on syllables in the overall sentence.
Helping verbs are also often signs of passive voice. Passive voice structures often make wordy sentences and can confuse readers as to how an action is happening.
Rewriting the sentence with active voice cuts down on syllables and provides clearer directions:
- Passive: “Applications should have been submitted by students before April 1.” (18 syllables)
- Active: “Students should submit their applications before April 1.” (15 syllables)
- Imperative: “Submit your application before April 1.” (12 syllables)
3. Use shorter words that are common vocabulary
Like sentence length, word length is a key factor in readability scores. Short words score better than words with multiple syllables.
For instance, you can choose “use” (1 syllable) in place of “utilize” (3 syllables). These words have the same meaning but utilize is longer and unnecessarily formal.
Also, try to use words that are part of everyday language. Obscure words are harder for people to understand, no matter how many syllables.
4. Be careful with semicolons
Semicolons are used to connect two distinct but related clauses into a single sentence; however, they often create really long sentences. Also, semicolons are used infrequently in everyday writing, so readers may not understand the meaning.
Instead, use a period and make two separate sentences. It’s a simpler sentence structure that will improve readability scores.
5. Limit paragraphs to 1-3 sentences
While paragraph length isn’t factored into scoring formulas, it can make a big difference for your readers.
Dense blocks of text are intimidating, and people can lose their tracking from line to line. Shorter paragraphs create plenty of white space, which gives readers a mental break so they can absorb information quickly.
6. Consider using bullet-point or numbered lists
This is another formatting tip that enhances readability. Lists are easy to skim quickly, create a clear structure to the content, and help prevent overlong paragraphs.
Based on these recommendations, you may think that writing has to basic and boring to be readable. This is not true. Your writing can be lively, intelligent, and sophisticated as well as readable.
Though readability is based on calculations, it’s ultimately a part of the art of writing. That means that the rules are not always clear-cut, and there is room for judgement calls.
You don’t want to write strictly for the formula and forget the needs of your audience. So, here are some things to watch.
1. Don’t make writing too easy for your audience
Getting your writing to a lower grade level isn’t always better. This is because people don’t want to feel like you’ve dumbed it down for them.
If you are writing for a teen-adult audience, then a 7-9th grade level and a 60-80 reading ease is usually the sweet spot.
2. Don’t sacrifice sentence style and cadence
A basic tenant of good writing is to use a mix of long and short sentences that flow into each other with a pleasant rhythm. While shorter sentences are easier to read, you don’t want to end up with choppy paragraphs.
It’s more about finding the right balance, and you might want to keep a longer sentence for flow even if it pushes readability scores a bit higher.
3. Don’t make up nonsensical phrases to avoid using a hard word
Sometimes you just have to use a hard word because there are no substitutes that capture the idea.
For instance, “scholarship” is a fairly hard word with 3 syllables. But that’s a standard term for a type of financial aid that is used by all colleges and universities. It would be more confusing if we started saying a “free money award” when we really mean scholarship.
You can mitigate the impact of unavoidable hard words by pairing them with easier phrases to provide enough context.
Tools for Readability
There are many free online tools that will calculate readability scores:
- Readability Analyzer – paste text or upload a file
- Readability Test Tool – paste text or scan a URL
- Automatic Readability Checker – paste up to 3,000 words
If you use these tools, make sure you pay attention to the Flesch-Kincaid Reading Level and Flesch Reading Ease scores.
The MarComm team has a paid Readable account, and we use this tool to assess content for websites, blogs and other projects.