How to improve your readability — without spending a dime

Word count: 598 words

Reading time: About 2.5 minutes

Do you use readability statistics to help improve your writing? If not, learn how to use them as quickly as possible! Here’s the reason why…

I understand that not everyone likes readability statistics. These handy-dandy tools, that measure the readability of your writing (by calculating sentence and word length), appear to be boring. They’re just numbers –- and who gets excited by numbers (well, unless someone’s talking about your earnings, an inheritance or lottery ticket winnings)?

Worse, sometimes these numbers are hard to understand! For example, why should anyone with a university education aspire to sound like someone with a grade 9 education? And why does exactly the same piece of writing generate different scores in different types of readability tools?

I confess, I use readability stats every day. I use them in evaluating my own writing and the work of others. Unfortunately, this aggravated reader David Ferman who wrote to me recently saying:

When I read your advice to other writers, I find myself inching forward in my seat as I read the sample that needs work. Then, just when I expect the payoff—a professionally edited, shorter-yet-somehow-more-informative piece— what do I get? Readability statistics. Whah???!

Can you imagine an acting instructor telling a student that his performance needed  a bit of work and that to improve the scene the student should just…take note of these statistics generated by the Thespo-meter? No you can’t. Instead, we all want the professor to tear the script from the young student, hop onto the stage, kiss the co-star like the playwright intended, and show all in attendance how the scene should Really Be Done.

While I have to note that David can really write (notice the clever use of metaphor, the comfortable second-person voice, the terrific invented word –- Thespo-meter –- and the evocative recreation of a scene), I disagree with his premise.

How do I love readability statistics? Let me count the ways!

I love that they’re free. They come prepackaged in Word (use your Help menu to figure out how to activate them in your version of Word). Or, if you prefer, have a website do the evaluating for you.

I love that they’re easy. Click a button and the computer does all the arithmetic. No need for counting or entering data into a calculator. The job is so simple a four-year-old could do it!

I love that they tell you how to improve your writing without having to deal with the cost (either financial or psychic) of showing your work to another person. While I believe that most editors are underpaid, they are certainly more expensive than free. Of course I encourage you to get a professional edit if you can afford it. But I also suggest you run your writing through readability stats first. In this way, you’ll save yourself money because the editor won’t have to deal with basics, such as sentence length.

While it’s true that editors do much more sophisticated work than any software, it’s also true that readability statistics are the very best place to start. I emphasize this because I want YOU using the stats too!

If you’re writing non-fiction, aim for a grade 9 level. This is not because your readers are ill-educated; it’s because they’re distracted and have so much else to do other than read your copy. Make your writing easy for them and they’re much more likely to read it.

The Flesh-Kincaid grade level is the readability score employed by Word. But there are others: the Gunning Fog index, the Coleman Liau, the Automated Readability Index and SMOG. If you use the online link I mentioned earlier, you will get all of them. In that case, aim for a grade 7 to 10 range.

Here’s how this column scored for me:

Automated Readability Index: 7.32
Flesh-Kincaid grade level: 8.52
Coleman Liau index: 9.54
Gunning Fog index: 10.23
SMOG: 10.34

How does your writing rate?

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