People are too busy to read anything that requires effort to understand. Neither do they want to consume content targeted at a 10 year old—unless, of course, they are 10 years old.
To create really effective content, you need to hit a happy medium between the two. This applies to content in any format, with even President Obama making use of the concept. The 2015 State of the Union speech, for example, was written for a ninth-grade level audience.
Missing the Mark
If your content aims too high or too low for your reader, you can expect the following to happen:
- Your reader won’t understand what you’re saying. Subject knowledge also plays a significant role in this, though, and in the context of online content the majority of users only choose to access material on a topic they know something about.
- The user will “taste” your content and move on, thinking it’s for a different target audience than he is. This is fine if it’s true, but not if you’re losing prospective clients in the process.
Fortunately for writers, there’s a convenient way to measure this, and it’s called “readability.” It’s particularly important when you’re writing on a complex topic, to ensure you don’t alienate your reader unnecessarily.
Long before the arrival of the Internet and online content, readability was being studied and questioned. Back in 1935, scholars identified a list of 288 factors that affect how easy or how difficult a piece of text is to read.
In 1985, the International Reading Association went on to determine that it wasn’t something that could be measured precisely, but was made up of a combination of things, including:
- Syntactic complexity
- Length of sentences and paragraphs
- The intricacy of punctuation
- Use of color and images
As writers, we mostly do this without thinking—crafting our copy based on an inherent knowledge of the audience we’re writing for and the information we want them to digest.
These days, there’s a more scientific way, though, which you can find in the Flesch-Kincaid Readability Score mechanism.
How Scoring Works
Developed in 1975 for use by the U.S. Navy, the Flesch-Kincaid (F-K) Reading grade level assessed the difficulty of technical manuals. Shortly after its adoption, the insurance industry implemented a law that policies also had to be written at a ninth-grade level. The two F-K tests of Reading Ease and Grade level are both based on the same measurements, which focus on things like the number of syllables in the words used, although they have different weightings.
Reading Ease Level
The Reading Ease level of a section of copy is given on a scale of zero to 100, which is divided into three categories:
- 90 to 100 : easily understood by an average 11 year old (or an adult with an 11 year old’s education level)
- 60 to 70 : understood by 13 to 15 year olds
- 0 to 30: understood by university graduates
This measurement is mostly used in the field of education, and emphasizes the length of the sentence over the length of the words used. This post, for example, is scored as being a 10.3 on the grade level score, so slightly above the average ability of a ninth-grader.
Measuring Your Score
None of this is as complicated as it seems at first glance, because the F-K tests have been built into a range of tools now conveniently available to writers. One of the easiest ones to access is right in your MS Word spelling and grammar toolkit. It gives you the readability stats in terms of both F-K tests, which means you can make changes and re-check it as many times as you need to.
Another option is the online readability test that you can use free of charge, or you can upgrade to a premium account for a fee of between $1 and $10 per year. This tool gives you a number of other scores as well as the F-K score, with easy-to-access explanations of each of them.
When you know how your writing stacks up against the various scores, you can do things like:
- Refining the number of words in any long sentences
- Making better use of punctuation such as commas
- Replacing long, unwieldy words with shorter ones
- Eliminating instances of passive speech and using active, direct voice instead.
As long as you know the average reading level of your target audience, you can customize the content as precisely as possibly to appeal to your market.