Viewing time: 5 mins. 41 secs.
The Write Question is a weekly video podcast about writing that I started in 2017 and that ran, more or less weekly, until April 2022. This is a republication of issue #73, with advice on how to use readability stats. The post first ran on Nov. 9/18.
Welcome to The Write Question, I’m Daphne Gray-Grant and my topic today is understanding readability stats.
Today, I have a question from Jim Homme who’s based in Pittsburgh, PA. Here’s what he’s asked.
“I’m a software developer who aims for a conversational style, because I write a lot of how-to material and directions on how to use software and tools. How can I get better at eliminating jargon, since we programmers tend to talk in gibberish? I like using the writing stats in Microsoft Word to remind me about how much passive language I’m using. I also try to pay attention to the stat about grade level, but I don’t really understand how to use it properly. What are the secrets to using this tool and what is the best grade level to aim for?”
Thanks for your question, Jim. For viewers or readers who are unfamiliar with writing stats — also known as readability stats — let me tell you that this tool is available to everyone in MS Word. The default installation of Word, however, does NOT enable it, so I’ve included a link to a video below, instructing you on how to install it.
Anyway, this handy device is something I use every day and I particularly like the “grade level” calculator which is part of it.
Language analysts first proposed readability stats more than 100 years ago. There are a whole bunch of different ones, including:
- The Gunning Fog index
- The Coleman Liao index
- The Automated Readability Index
- The SMOG level, and
- The Flesch Kinkaid grade level
While all of these indices do the same thing, they all work in slightly different ways. For example, some of them measure length of words based on the number of characters, while others use the number of syllables.
So, if you enter exactly the same text into each of these indices, you’ll see a slightly different score. MS Word uses the Flesch Kinkaid grade level but if you’d like to see ALL of the indices at the same time, I include a link below to Online-Utility.Org. So, which one should you believe? I think you should look at the RANGE, from lowest to highest.
The main thing to know is that these indices measure only the things they can count. They don’t reflect a sophisticated Artificial Intelligence analysis of your text. Instead, they look at four specific aspects of writing:
- Length of words
- Length of sentences
- Length of paragraphs
- Amount of passive voice.
For programmers like you, Jim, and for the engineers and academics with whom I often work, I think the single best measurement to focus on is sentence length. Many people write too many sentences that are too long.
But, also remember that you don’t want every sentence to be short. If you do that, your text might end up sounding like a grade school reader: “See Jane pat the dog, Spot.” Instead, what you want is a wide range of sentence lengths with an average length of somewhere between 14 and 18 words. Does that sound too short to you? You may or may not be a fan of author J.K. Rowling, but you won’t likely regard her style as overly simplistic. Yet her average sentence length is 12.
I’ve written a detailed post on how to achieve a better sentence length and I include a link to that below. I also provide a link to Count Wordsworth, a free app that, among other jobs, will provide you with a sentence length analysis.
Note that your goal is to achieve an AVERGE of 14 to 18 words and this does NOT mean that every sentence should be this length. Instead, allow the occasional 40-, 50- or even 60-word sentence. Just be sure to balance them with the occasional one to five-word sentence. How do you do that? I just did it, with the five word sentence, “how do you do that?”
Now, let’s talk about grade level. The indices use their core measurements — word length, sentence length, paragraph length and amount of passive — to assign a grade level to every piece of writing.
You might think that the higher the better, but this is NOT true. Instead, you want to aim at a grade 9 level. This means that your writing is clear and easy to read, regardless of the education level of your reader. It is not an insult to your readers to write to a grade 9 level. This is the level that most publications, including the New York Times will aim for.
If your grade level is too high, then simply use shorter words, shorter sentences, shorter paragraphs and less passive. All of these actions will help reduce your grade level.
Finally, let me wrap up with a quote from the late English professor Lucius Sherman from the University of Nebraska who in 1893 proposed making the written word as close as possible to the spoken word. Here is what he said: “The oral sentence represents the work for thousands of years in perfecting an effective instrument of communication.”
Thanks for the question, Jim. If you’re able to aim at a grade 9 writing level, your readers will thank you and they’ll have a much easier time understanding your text.