PSLs and Associates: how readable is your writing?

You close your document with a neat turn of phrase, tap the full-stop key with a flourish, lift your hands from the keyboard and sit back smugly.

But how do you know that what you’ve written is clear, concise and readable?

You’ve read it back to yourself over and over, it sounds OK, but you’re so close to it you’re not the best judge. The deadline is looming. You need objective feedback on it and now.

Enter the Readability Statistics.

Developed by Dr Rudolf Flesch — a Viennese Jew who fled to the US from Nazi persecution and became a New York sociologist famed for his work on readability — this is a little-known function in every version of Microsoft® Word, Outlook and Apple. Here’s what it looks like:

readable-writing-readability-statistics

It not only gives you standard stuff like word and character count; it also gives you four helpful numbers:

ASL (Average Sentence Length) In the middle (‘Averages’) section, your ‘Words per Sentence’ is the average number of words per sentence, or ASL.Your ASL heavily influences readability, as long sentences contain more ideas and demand more processing power than short ones. (Technique #20 in my book rhetorica® — a toolkit of 21 everyday writing techniques shows you some easy ways to shorten your sentences.)

Your ASL target: 15-20 words.

Passive Sentences In the lower (‘Readability’) section, ‘Passive Sentences’ is the proportion of sentences in the passive voice.Passivitis is a chronic affliction. Writing in the passive voice is longer, less direct and less vigorous than the active voice. The clue’s in the name.

Your ‘Passive Sentences’ target: as close to 0% as possible.

Flesch Reading Ease (FRE) score In the same section of the stats, your FRE scores the readability of your text as a percentage, so the higher the better.Dr Flesch used two measures of readability: the average number of words per sentence and average number of syllables per word. In his system, plain English starts at 60% FRE. Authors of technical documents rarely reach those dizzy heights, because technical jargon tends to be polysyllabic, depressing readability. But we should be able to score 45-50% FRE by offsetting techie text with simple supporting language.

Your FRE target: at least 45%.

Flesch-Kincaid Grade Level This is functional reading age as measured by the US grade school system, i.e. the minimum amount of American education required to understand a piece of writing.To convert Flesch-Kincaid Grade Level into age, add five, i.e. a grade level of 5.0 is roughly an American ten-year old. This means that, at a minimum, an American ten-year old could understand your text. It doesn’t mean you’re targeting that age group!

No target for this one, but most of my corporate clients set a Flesch-Kincaid Grade Level for their external communications of 10–11. (Recently tested articles from The Economist scored an average Flesch-Kincaid level of 10.3 to 10.8, exploding the myth that The Economist is high-brow and only for college graduates.)

Word of warning: the stats work best on fully punctuated body copy of at least 200 words; they don’t work well on titles, headlines, sub-headings, bullet points and captions. If your document has lots of these, save it as a text-only file and run the stats on that for a truer score.

To find out how to activate the Stats and score your next piece of writing, click here to see the article.

The bottom-line

Assessing a piece of writing — whether yours or someone else’s — can be subjective; the red pen is never far away. But the readability stats make assessment a tad more objective: they show you what is going on with the mechanics of the text. So if you’re defending your word-choice to a fee-earner or giving a junior staff member feedback on their writing, you can now do so with evidence and authority. (And if your version turns out to be more readable than your boss’s, you face an interesting dilemma…)

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If you’d like to go to the heart of the matter and download three chapters of my book, rhetorica® — a toolkit of 21 everyday writing techniques, here’s the link: Download rhetorica® Chapters

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Scott Keyser runs Write for Results, a communications and business development consultancy. Write for Results works with professionals who perform technically complex work (eg lawyers, accountants, engineers), but who sometimes struggle to communicate the value of that work to their market in an engaging way. Scott and his team simply show them how to make their comms — including their bids, tenders, pitches and proposals — clear, concise and compelling.

To book a slot to speak to Scott about your or your team’s writing, click here: http://bit.ly/2f5o6di