When you find easy reading text it’s like breathing fresh air. All of a sudden, reading isn’t work and you can breeze through it. You get the message quicker and you remember it better. If you understand the beauty of better readability, why doesn’t your website have it? Or, you blog posts, or any of the other items you write?
When we communicate in the B2B world we inflate our sentences. Quite magically, we can’t stop typing three syllable words. Undaunted, we start cramming 23 words into comma stuffed sentences, as we break a sweat trying to impress folks with our education level.
Too much of our writing relies on meaningless phrases and complex sentences. But it doesn’t have to be that way. If you undertsand what makes up easy reading you can follow proven steps to boost your content’s readability.
Easy Reading Not a Hallmark of Business Writing
Business writing is often stilted, tilted and wilted. The desire to sound ‘official’ and formal invades writers’ minds. Business writers also lean heavily on phrases that have no meaning because they are so overused. Thanks to copy and paste, writing is reduced to mindlessly moving words around as they are easily available and manipulated. Easy writing doesn’t create easy reading. At the heart of business writing’s problems is readability.
The formulas that measure readability use these inputs:
- Average number of words in a sentence.
- Average number of syllables per word.
- Percentages of personal words and personal sentences.
- Percentage of passive sentences.
From those parameters you end up with scores for reading ease, percentage of adults comfortable reading the text, reading grade level and human interest.
Put It To The Test
Here’s where you can see what it’s all about. Put some of your text into this readability checker from WebFX.
In the early 1900s educators started trying to match reading material to the student. The first readability formula came out in 1923, according to Alexandra H. Humphreys and Jere T. Humphreys at Arizona State University. By 1949 Dr. Rudolf Flesch, who later wrote ”Why Johnny Can’t Read,” used a simple statement to describe readability:
“To most people, readability means ease of reading plus interest. They want to make as little effort as possible while they are reading, and they also want something ‘built in’ that will automatically carry them forward like an escalator”
During the 1940s scholars and researchers refined readability formulas. Between 1948 and 2008, researchers proved over and over that using formulas to assess readability was more accurate than assessments by experienced writers. They also discovered most people are exposed to reading difficulties beyond their comfort zones.
When documents, email, blog posts, white papers, case studies and articles lack readability they’re wasting your time and the reader’s. But there are also more tangible costs. You’ll increase your business transaction costs by 40%. Poorly written and designed forms will waste 28% of your staff’s time. You’ll spend more on support calls when documents are difficult to read. You’ll lose time to recurring clarifications required on poorly written memos and letters. Your newsletters will only hold the attention of a small percentage of your audience. If your website presents information greater than the 12th grade reading level, you’ll only effectively inform about 15% of your target audience.
What Readability Level to Aim For, and Making It Stick
A good starting point for most B2B writing is 8th grade reading level. That’s especially true for web writing but even for case studies and white papers. People will thank you if your forms, documents and instructions also hit below the 10th grade reading level.
Focus on how many words you pack into sentences. Try for 15 or fewer. Also consider how many words have more than three syllables. See what words you can substitute replace with words having two or fewer syllables. Don’t get frantic over it. You are going for the average.
Decide and Inform
Don’t be disappointed despair if you can’t always hit a particular certain reading grade level, or human interest score. Sentence structure affects scores. Some paragraphs will score higher or lower than others. When you use bullets, the readability results will get skewed unless you use periods after them. And, when you include attributions to sources the sentences get longer. You can’t chop up quotes.
In business you also must consider jargon. When writing for unique audiences there are words you should use, because they know them well, and expect them. If those words are three syllables and longer then it makes it more difficult to hit your reading grade mark. If writing about ‘construction’ you will naturally use that word a lot and end up with more three syllable words. But, you must use it. There are few synonyms that’ll do the job.
So, strive for a range such as between 8th and 10th grade reading level, and mildly interesting to very interesting for a human interest score.
Post your goals and let everyone know what they are. Don’t forget though to provide the tools people can use to check their writing. For example, Grammarian includes excellent statistics tools, including analysis tools that will help people edit their writing to bring it in line with the goals.
The Secrets to Higher Human Interest Scores
Human interest hinges on using personal words and personal sentences. These include:
- Non-neuter pronouns like its, they, their
- Words that denote gender such as actor, Sarah, mother
- The words ‘people’ and ‘folks’
- Quoted dialog within sentences
- Questions, commands and requests of the reader
- Incomplete sentences with inferred meanings
Some Passive Is Needed
It’s also a good idea to pay attention to the percentage of passive sentences. Many people go overboard and don’t want to see any passive sentences. But even the masters on the topic, Strunk and White, allowed room for passive sentences since they can help with the flow of things. They assist in keeping the musical quality of the text from becoming too stuccato-like. Realistically, you could aim for no more than 10% passive sentences and still have nicely active text
It’s very important for editors to take easy reading into account. Otherwise you will have editors turning readable copy into less readable copy. Editing is subjective, so make sure your editor is checking content for readability before editing it. They should check it for readability afterward, too.
Try to produce content that’s interesting to your audience and is easy to read. If you just focus on those two items you can roll out articles that attract people. But, you need to have editorial standards for content and readability that are measurable and easy to understand.