What Writers Need to Know About Readability
Updated: Apr 8
Do we need to “dumb” it down? The simple answer is “YES”
Bow To the Flesch-Kincaid Readability Score
I know you’ve heard of it. The Flesch-Kincaid Readability test determines the education level needed to understand the text. By counting the number of words, sentences, syllables, and then “weighting” them, the F-K test scores writing. The formula looks like this:
0.39 (total words divided by total sentences) + 11.8 (total syllables divided by total words) — 15.59.
I’m no mathematician, so I have no earthly idea of how the numbers of 0.39, 11.8, and 15.59 were determined. I don’t even understand how they determined the need to ADD the two sides of the equation together or SUBTRACT 15.59 from the grand total.
Here’s what I DO know:
The requirements are the same for every copywriting job I’ve had.
“Write at the sixth grade level.”
I have to wonder why I went to school all those years to learn how to write. Now I know that I could have become a professional writer back at Clarksville Middle School at the age of eleven instead of waiting until I was in my sixties.
Why write at the sixth-grade level?
Modern readers spend less time reading and more time scanning than ever before. One study suggests that most readers read only 20% of the words on any given page. Think of that. If you write 1000 words in a post, most readers will only look at about 200 non-sequential words.
The simpler the sentences, the more likely they are to be absorbed.
The simpler the vocabulary, the more likely they are to be understood.
The average American reads between the 8th and 9th-grade level. Studies show that people prefer to read two grades below their ability.
Speed is what matters. People want to consume information as fast as possible, a task made possible by simple, easy-to-consume words.
Intelligence has nothing to do with simplicity. It’s about pace and efficiency. Even the smartest people want to consume information quickly.
Is writing to a lower grade level going to have long-term effects?
It already has.
Ben Blatt is a journalist and statistician, author of Nabokov’s Favorite Word is Mauve. Blatt uses data to test literary hypotheses, determine authorship, and determine trends through 2014. By loading thousands of books into computers and doing word counts, he can scientifically prove that our political speech and our writing is getting less sophisticated with every passing year.
Since the founding of the United States, the F-K score of our political discourse has gotten lower and lower. The Guardian’s article, “The State of Our Union Is…Dumber,” illustrates the decrease. The reading level demonstrated by James Madison was 21.6. Donald Trump’s 9th-grade level was on par with recent presidents. Since the reign of Warren Harding in the early 1920s — almost a century ago — no American President has written or spoken at above the 12th-grade level.
If we write like we talk, well, you know what happens…
Our writing is getting simpler and simpler. Possibly, even “dumber and dumber.” Blatt’s book documents these trends:
Every NYT bestseller from 1960 to 2014 falls in the seventh-grade level spread, from 4th to 11th.
Our writing follows the same downward trend of political speech.
The average readability score for bestselling books in the 1960s was 8th grade. Now, it’s a full-year less.
In 2014, there were 37 bestsellers. 36 of those books read BELOW a 7.2. A whopping 97% of the books in 2014 were below the 7th-grade level.
In the last 60 years, a scant 25 bestsellers have scored higher than 9th-grade level.
Since 2000, only 2 bestsellers have scored higher than 9th-grade readability.
Simplification is not just for copywriting
Based on Blatt’s findings, we can see that the trend to simplify and speed up our reading is NOT just for copywriting and blogging.
The trend is in fiction, too.
This will blow your mind.
The bestselling authors of our time are writing at the 4th-grade level.
“8 books tie for the lowest score,” a 4.4, just above 4th-grade level. Prolific, well-known authors with huge sales: James Patterson, Janet Evonvich, and Nora Roberts.”
These three authors have written a combined total of 419 books.
These best-selling authors demonstrate the overall trend in literature. The easier it is to read, the more likely it is to sell. Apparently, no one likes to “savor” a sentence, linger over language, or experience the wonder of words.
Brevity over beauty. Information over emotion.
Case in point: Out of the #1 bestsellers since the 1960s, 28 had a grade level below 5th-grade! Twenty-six of those books were written after 2000.
Sentence structure is changing
Bestselling books are more likely to have short sentences than long ones. The average word length of a sentence has gone from 17 words per sentence in the 1960s to just 12 words per sentence in the 2000s.
Maybe, you think, the Flesch-Kincaid Test is flawed. That’s okay. The Dale-Chall test shows the same trend.
Do you know about the Dale-Chall Readability Formula?
The Flesch-Kincaid scale is not the only way to measure readability. The Dale-Chall Formula was developed in 1948. Two reading experts, Edgar Dale and Jeanne Chall decided to look at the complexity of words to determine grade level. They developed a list of 763 simple, “non-hard” words. In 1995, that list was expanded to 3000 words.
The Dale-Chall Formula looked at the length of sentences and the number of complex words (the ones that did NOT appear on the list of common words) and determined a grade level.
The downward trend in writing for lower reading ability is reflected in the Dale-Chall Formula is used as well.
Blatt finds that in the 1960s, #1 New York Times bestsellers had an average of 14% complex words. That average is now 12%, a significant decline since the overall range is very small.
The Gunning-Fog Index
Less well-known than the Flesch-Kincaid or the Dale-Chall indexes is the Gunning-Fog index. Gunning was an editor and American businessman who, after having his writing critiqued as too difficult, began to see the benefits of simplification. He developed a formula that combined the approaches of the Flesch-Kincaid and the Dale-Chall. His formula encompassed the number of words per sentence AND the number of complex words.
Gunning recognized that simplifying his writing would increase his audience:
“There are limits relating to long sentences and long words that the craftsman does not go beyond. The writer’s restrictions may be conscious or unconscious, but they are there. If not, he does not win an audience.”
It’s different from the other two scoring mechanisms because its formula is simpler, a virtue still praised today.
The future of writing
I love poring over a book, languishing over the language, dawdling over the dictionary when I find a word I don’t know. Am I a dinosaur, soon-to-be-extinct, treading in the archaic footprints of a forgotten literary world?
As a writer, I have to wonder how our reading habits will affect our words.
What will the bestsellers of 2030 look like? Will adults be breezing through books written at the 3rd-grade level and feeling proud of how many we consume? Will language become nothing but more like a dot-dot-dash kind of visual language?
Writers have to consider their purpose
Short, simple, brief, and bold will always work for copywriting.
It also worked for dozens of great writers:
To Kill a Mockingbird is written at a 5.9-grade level.
The Sun Also Rises scores a 4.2.
Grapes of Wrath reads at a 4.1-grade level.
But there’s room in our world for authors who don’t subscribe to the “brief-is-best” theory. There’s room for literary beauty in nonfiction and fiction, work that isn’t subjected to genre expectations, easy words, and short sentences.
Somewhere out there are future bestselling writers who craft 100-word sentences, detailed description, and layers of meaning wrapped in language.
But for now, know this.
Tools to test yourself
If you’re wondering how your writing stacks up to the new norm, try these tools:
The New Dale-Chall Readability Tool
In case you’re wondering, this article is right where it’s supposed to be. It scores 6.6 on the F-K scale and Dale-Chall Formula. The free app listed above for the Gunning-Fog test only accepts articles of less than 1000 words, so this piece, at more than 1450 words, couldn’t be calculated.
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