First things first — what exactly is readability? Wikipedia defines readability as “the ease with which a reader can understand a written text.
In natural language, the readability of text depends on its content (the complexity of its vocabulary and syntax) and its presentation”. The presentation of the text — it’s font size, spacing, etc. — is not our focus here. We’re focusing on the words we choose, and how we put them together into sentences and paragraphs for our readers.
Does readability matter?
Certainly, readability matters. Our main objective in writing is to pass along information that both the writer and the reader think is worthwhile. If we fail to convey that information, our efforts are wasted.
Regardless of what our immediate goals for our writing are, our ultimate goal is to convert our readers into happy “customers”, in one form or another. In order to reach that goal, we need to engage them at each step of their journey.
Therefore, it’s critical to present information to them that they’ll gladly keep reading. And that, of course, requires that the content be easy enough to read and understand — in other words, to be as readable as possible.
Who thinks readability is important?
Well, Google cares, so we should probably care. In the “olden days” of the internet, “content farms” would crank out millions of pages of junk content, just to feed the search engines. Much of that content was completely unreadable, so readers quickly hit the “Back” button.
Those days, fortunately, are over. Google, in particular, has gotten very adept at sorting through the vast heap of written text and surfacing the information it thinks its users are looking for.
Google has even publicly stated that readability is one of the factors in its ranking algorithm. At one time, readability level was even a Google search setting that users could adjust.
So, if we’re writing for the web, that’s all the justification we need to care about readability. We need to keep our content readable, both to keep our readers happy, and to keep Google sending them our way.
Magazine publishers care. After the Flesch Reading Ease formula was created in 1943, leading publishers discovered that adhering to the formula could raise their readership by 40 to 60 percent.
Predictably, many other publishers immediately jumped on board. Later, in a project sponsored by the U.S. Navy, the Flesch Reading Ease formula was adapted into a score based on U.S. school grade level, called the Flesch-Kincaid Grade Level formula. The U.S. Department of Defense found the formula so useful, it now uses it as the standard test of readability for its documents and forms.
In healthcare, readability can, literally, be a matter of life and death. It’s vitally important that patients be able to fully comprehend the instructions they’re given, in order to ensure that they follow their treatment plans precisely. In particular, medications must be taken in the correct dosage and at the right time. Since millions of people in the U.S., and around the world, have poor reading skills, readability is a critical factor.
From a financial perspective, it’s important that terms and conditions be stated clearly, for both customers and investors. Studies have shown that financial disclosures that are difficult to read result in less trust among investors, which results in less investment in those companies.
These days, the Fog Index has become a popular measure of the readability of financial disclosure literature. The SEC has even considered using the Fog Index to identify poorly written financial documents.
Have you read any of your insurance policies? Readability has famously been an issue in the past in insurance literature. Insurance regulators have certainly taken notice.
Most states now have regulations that impose a “plain writing” requirement on all insurance policies. More than a dozen states now require, by law, that specific Flesch Reading Ease scores be met in all insurance policy information.
The U.S. government certainly considers readability an important issue. In 2010, President Obama signed the Plain Writing Act — a law that requires that federal agencies use “clear communication that the public can understand and use.” If you Google “plain writing act”, you’ll see that the top results include a laundry list of U.S. government agency websites — FDA, EPA, USDA, Energy, Justice, — they’re all on the first page. Readability is clearly a priority for the U.S. government.
How can we measure readability?
The Flesch Reading Ease scale, developed by Rudolf Flesch, is clearly the most commonly used readability measure. The Flesch-Kincaid Grade Level score, which came later, is also widely used. Although the Flesch-Kincaid Grade Level score is more readily understood by the general public, the Flesch Reading Ease score is a more precise measure. Laws mandating required readability levels usually state those levels in terms of the Flesch Reading Ease score.
There are a number of other formulas for measuring readability, which may or may not be better suited for specific purposes. For example, the Dale-Chall formula has proven to be more accurate in the selection of textbooks. In the medical industry, the SMOG test has proven to be the most useful. The article, “How To Choose The Right Readability Formula” provides details on the various formulas, and suggests which formula is most useful in various situations.
In any case, the Readable.io scoring tool automatically scores every text sample against 9 different formulas, and even delivers a proprietary overall letter-grade score, for quick assessment.
The bottom line
Readability definitely matters, and it’s easier than ever to determine your readability score, and make sure that your writing engages your readers.
How did we do?
I’m sure you’re wondering how this article scored for readability. Readable.io’s overall score for this article was a solid “B”, and the Flesch Reading Ease score was 51.6, which is at the 10th to 12th grade reading level.
Readable.io lets you score pasted text and files for free, and offers tips on how to make your writing more readable, along with lots of interesting stats on your writing.
Original post: Does readability matter by Steve Metivier