Flesching it out

Posted: July 10th, 2009 in People

What if you could measure the readability of your organisation’s written communications as scientifically as you measure website hits or telephone responses?

Many of Iris’s clients are big public sector organisations, government departments and national brands with a need for simple, straightforward communications that are easily understood by just about anyone. And the key to achieving that is well-written, readable copy.

Flesch Picture

Sounds so easy doesn’t it? But what does ‘readable’ actually mean? Exactly whose idea of ‘readable’ are we talking about? What’s readable to one person can have the next reader floundering amidst its manifold polysyllables (see what I did there?). Wouldn’t it be handy if there were a simple way of objectively measuring the readability of your organisation’s written communications? Well, there is. In fact, it’s been right under your nose, or more precisely your mouse button, all the time.

A tip I picked up on a Plain English course was to use the in-built Readability Score in Word. Tucked away in the options button inside Spelling and Grammar in the Tools drop-down menu there’s a tick box option called ‘Show readability statistics’. Click that, and every time you run a Spelling and Grammar check in Word, you’ll automatically get a Flesch score for that bit of copy. Who knew that little gem of a tool was there?

The Flesch Reading Ease Test calculates the number of words, sentences and syllables to give you a readability score. A high score indicates a more readable piece of copy, a lower score marks passages that are more difficult to read. Reader’s Digest magazine has a readability index of about 65, Time magazine scores around 52, an average year 7 student’s (eleven years) written assignment has a readability test of 60-70 (and a reading grade level of 6-7) and the Harvard Law Review has a general readability score in the low 30s. The highest (easiest) score possible is around 120.

Rudolf Flesch, who wanted to create a formula that authors of school textbooks could use to measure their readability, invented the test way back in the 1940s. However, it still has its place because the principles of good, simple, accessible writing are the same today as they were then. Keep sentences short. Use short words rather than longer ones…. and… well, that’s about all there is to it really.

Try it on some of your business’s words. It can be very enlightening. Especially if you discover you’ve been spending huge amounts of marketing spend creating customer communications that only Stephen Hawking can understand.

Of course, it’s not the Holy Grail of writing. And – copywriters everywhere heave a big sigh of relief – it won’t actually write the words for you. But it’s another handy last minute sanity check that helps you root out passive or long sentences and generally get a more objective measure of your use of words. And just in case you were wondering, these words have a readability score of 59.7 and there are 33 sentences, with 522 words (15.82 per sentence) made up of 809 syllables (1.55 per word).