Readability metrics: Do they get your message?
What is “readability” and why is it important? According to the encyclopedia, “Legibility is a measure of the accessibility of a writing, which indicates how wide it will reach an audience. Legibility is a judgment of how easy it is to understand a text.” [Wikipedia 2006]
Because it is important? Well, out of all the vague uncertainties about whether your marketing message or website copy is the right one to get the job done, one thing you can be sure of is whether your readers can understand it. Your copywriting skills can be good, bad, or indifferent, but you can be absolutely sure that if they can’t read it, you don’t stand a chance.
Tools of the Trade
While copywriting itself is both an art and a science, luckily readability metrics are easy to calculate, easy to interpret, and they don’t lie. Most of us don’t use them, but we should. This is the bare minimum: how many of your readers can “catch” what you are writing. The tools to determine this are easily accessible, free, and easy to use.
In Tools in Word, your spell checker will calculate some summary counts and averages, as well as two readability metrics if you check “Check Readability Statistics” in the Spelling and Grammar Options. But it does the latter, so you have to go through the entire spell checker first. However, it might not be such a bad idea …
However, much more powerful is an excellent free tool from Readability.info. This online resource calculates readability scores for Word files and entire websites in an instant. As they say: “By comparing the readability score of different documents (or web pages), you can refine your writing and make sure you don’t create sentences and paragraphs that are too complex for your audience.”
Specifically, the tool provides all of the following readability and associated metrics:
- Readability indexes
- Prayer information
- Word usage information
- Principles of prayer
Another free tool that isn’t that powerful but certainly useful (and you probably haven’t heard of it before) is Future Now online. We-We calculator. No, it is not a urine test for illegal drugs! This nifty tool analyzes the words on your site to see if you are talking primarily about your customers and their needs or if you are primarily talking about yourself.
We are quite proud of our businesses, products and services. But naturally customers don’t care about that (weird, huh?). Rather, they are very interested in themselves and their own wants and needs. Future Now’s quick analysis can help you adjust that balance. You will probably be surprised by the objective analysis.
This is a good time to review the various popular readability ratings, all of which are calculated by the Readability.info tool. Some take a different approach or measure things a little differently, and in any case, everyone picks out just a few favorites that they trust on a regular basis. Are here:
Tea Automated readability index (ARI) is designed to measure the understandability of a text. Like many of the other indices, its output is a rough representation of the US grade level required to understand the text. Unlike the other indices, the ARI, along with the Coleman-Liau, is based on a factor of characters per word, rather than the usual syllables per word. Formula: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Automated_Readability_Index
Tea Coleman-Liau Index It was designed to measure the understandability of a text. Like the ARI, but unlike most other indices, Coleman-Liau relies on characters rather than syllables per word. Although opinion varies as to their accuracy compared to syllable / word rates and complex words, computer programs count characters faster and more accurately than syllables. Formula: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Coleman-Liau_Index
Tea Flesch-Kincaid readability tests they are designed to indicate how difficult it is to understand a reading passage. There are two tests, the Flesch Reading Ease Index and the Flesch-Kincaid Grade Level Score. These are supposedly the same measures, just placed on a different scale, but the results of the two tests do not always correlate closely. Formula: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Flesch-Kincaid_Readability_Test
Tea Burning Fog Index it is a test that indicates the number of years of formal education that a person requires to easily understand a text on the first reading. That is, if a passage has a fog index of 12, it has the reading level of a US high school senior. The test was developed by Robert Gunning, an American businessman, in 1952. texts that are designed for a wide audience generally require a fog index of less than 12. Formula: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gunning-Fog_Index
Tea Laesbarhedsindex The readability formula (LIX) is useful because it is simple and can be used in documents of any Western European language. The test calculates an index score of a text sample based on the length of the sentence and the number of long words (that is to say, words containing seven or more characters). Formula: [http://www.oleandersolutions.com/lix.html]
SMOG (Simple Measure of Gibberish) is a widely used readability formula that estimates the years of education required to understand writing. It provides an exceptionally high correlation of 0.985 with the ratings of readers who had a 100% understanding of the test materials. It was invented by G. Harry McLaughlin in 1969 as a more accurate and easier to calculate substitute for Gunning-Fog_Index. Formula:
What is good?
A “good” score, of course, depends on your target audience, your chosen style (part of the brand), and what you intend to do. But there are some general rules. According to Future Now  In reference to several published studies, an “ideal writing standard” could be the following:
- No more than 4.25 characters per word.
- No more than 5% passive voice.
- Not less than 80% readability.
- A Flesch-Kincaid grade level between 4 and 65 (the sky’s the limit, it seems …)
- A fog index higher than 13 puts you in the danger zone.
While the grade level seems arbitrary depending on who your target audience is, it must be said that the average best-seller is around grade level 4, newspapers around 6, and business books 7-8. Lower than you thought.
Of course, your audience can read at higher levels, but you want your message to be easy to read. If your readability scores seem too out of line with your audience’s skills, Future Now offers a few strategies for making repairs:
- Rewrite passive sentences to become active sentences.
- Eliminate unnecessary words like “the” or “a”, weird words like “that”, adjectives that don’t have a significant impact, or anything that doesn’t help your message.
- Replace 50 cent words with 5 cent words as long as the difference is not critical to your style or meaning.
- Let your verbs do the work that you would otherwise assign to your adjectives.
- Take the time to learn how your customers talk about your product or service so that you can write to them in the language they actually use.
Just one piece of the puzzle
Obviously, this is just a quick introduction to the topic. But taking a closer look at the content of your text in a quantitative way can provide some surprises, as well as suggestions for adjustments you may want to make. While there are strong guidelines, in general, there is no “good” or “bad” score; it all depends on what you want to achieve.
If your goal is the widest possible audience, then the lowest reasonable grade level is what you want. If this is a serious enough discussion for a B2B audience, then you may not want to simplify your content, but would rather aim for an 8-10 grade level of understanding. It all depends.
Terms like “Behavioral Targeting Monetization” or even more complex terms may not appeal to readability programs, but you know you should use them in certain circumstances. “Metrics” is a tremendously useful word, but it is unfamiliar to most people at first. Sometimes you have to do what you have to do: don’t throw the baby out with the bath water.
And of course, these numbers are not the only critical element in your writing: “Obviously, numbers alone cannot make you a good writer. Many other factors contribute to legible and understandable writing.” We could also add “cash” there.
These factors include not only what good copywriters do, but also things like font, size, color, placement, etc. in your presentation or website design. Even the day and time you send an email marketing message. Many pieces to this puzzle and the more you know about each one, the better your chances of success!
Future now. “Can your clients read what you write?” GrokDotCom Volume 139 09/15/06.
“Readability,” Wikipedia 03/10/06. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Readability