Using Readability Tools to Improve Content
By Doug Davis
Like all Web content writers, I’m always looking for simpler ways to make my job easier.
Readability tools help me manage two of my biggest challenges, which are:
- Holding the reader’s attention. You have to keep them reading long enough to get your message across.
- Maintaining a consistent voice. You need a lot of content on your site, but you don’t really want your site to sound like different people wrote it.
Let’s take a quick look at how readability tools work, and how they can work for you.
How Readability Tools Work
One of the things I always do before publishing my content is to check the readability score. Readability scores are based on a U.S. elementary school grade level. For Web content targeted at adult readers, I recommend shooting for somewhere between a 7th- and 8th-grade reading level.
The Flesch-Kincaid Grade Level score is the easiest to use, because it’s the one used in MS Word. When you finish running the MS Word spelling and grammar checker on your document, the Flesch-Kincaid Grade Level score is displayed.
Here’s the equation that calculates the Flesch-Kincaid Grade Level score:
(.39 x ASL) + (11.8 x ASW) – 15.59
- ASL = Average sentence length. This is the number of words divided by the number of sentences.
- ASW = Average number of syllables per word. This is the number of syllables divided by the number of words.
So, it’s pretty easy to see that shorter sentences with shorter words lower the readability score.
Making the Most of Readability Tools
After you write the first draft of a new page, run the spelling and grammar checker and fix any obvious problems. Then, look at the readability score. This will give you a quick idea as to how deeply you need to edit on your next pass through the page. If the score is 13, then you’ll need to go back to the document with a meat axe. If the score is 9, then a laser scalpel will suffice.
When you’re editing for readability, you are shortening sentences and shortening words.
This can have two positive effects on your site:
- Longer Visits—You are making it easier for the reader to read your content. The easier the content is to read, the longer the visitor will spend reading it. (By the way, this article has a 6th-grade readability score, and you’ve almost read it all. See what I mean?)
- Consistent Voice—If you are using a team of writers, require that their content be written to a specific grade level. Look at any style guide and you will see page after page of specific words to use and how to use them. However, from a practical perspective, it’s tough to get writers to use style guides. By moving to shorter words, you are actually limiting the number of words that the writers can use. You are knocking out countless big words like “utilize” and replacing them with little words like “use.” By requiring them to write to a specific score, you also help them write with a specific voice.
Effective use of readability scores will help you score a bull’s eye with your readers!