To say we can measure readability objectively is going too far. Some aspects are still beyond our man-made formulas – probably because they’re too abstract to track. But we can get close. That’s for two reasons:
- Contrary to what most people think, a lot of readability is down to simple things.
- We’ve been working on figuring out what those are for quite a while now.
The initial push came back in the 1920s along with the first cross-Atlantic flight and jazz. There were several attempts at formulating readability. The most renowned is the one invented by the psychologist Edward Thorndike.
He proposed that you could measure readability by giving a text’s difficult words a score and adding them together. Not bad. Our modern theories do almost the same, though they take into account other factors. The most famous one is probably the Flesch-Kincaid test, which was thought up in 1975 and is still used today.
Here’s the formula:
Don’t worry about the details. I have no idea why he chose those weights either. Instead, let’s focus on the big picture. As you can see, it uses words per sentences and syllables per word to analyze a text. Seems too simple to you? I hear you. I thought the same.
People have actually come up with more advanced formulas. The truth is, though, that their extra complexity doesn’t lead to that much more accuracy. That might be because of the before mentioned problem measuring some dimensions of readability.
Modern AI can probably do a better task with that. So if you have access to Google or some similar company who analyze writing, use their algorithms. For the less-well-connected among us, we’ll focus on the readability tools that we can actually use.
And yes, afterward I will explore some of the other ways to boost readability beyond these formulas.
What’s that? Party in your mind? I hope there’s samba music.
Using and understanding the readability tools
It’s pretty easy to access readability formulas nowadays. Just throw your text into either Hemmingway App or readable.io and Bob’s your uncle. The first one, though simpler, is a great tool. I use it almost daily. The latter one I’ve only started using recently. It gives you a whole lot more feedback – like different readability tests and a lot more statistics. It does have only a limited number of uses per day, however. To get more you need to pay (gasp) 3 dollars per month.
We’re in an expensive line of work, ladies, and gentlemen.
The readability is calculated as a grade level. This is the reading ability your audience needs to understand your text. You should take the results with a grain of salt, as Hemingway says a 4th grader can read this text, while Readable says it is more suited for 7th graders. I don’t think this text could be read by a 10-year-old, or even a 13-year-old. Do correct me if I’m wrong (particularly if you’re that age and reading this text!).
Some people seem to think a higher grade level makes their text look more sophisticated. Disabuse yourself of that idea! More difficult texts don’t mean more engaging. Engagement is a different dimension. Instead, it means your texts are harder to read – nothing more, nothing less.
Besides, the better strategy is to not befuddle your audience with your ‘sophisticated’ text but to wow them with your ideas. After all, the best writers are those who can make the most complicated concepts accessible to the widest audience.
So that’s the reading level. Next, we’re going to turn to the other information these programs give back.
Hard to read sentences
First off, when these tools talk about hard sentences, they don’t always refer to longer sentences. Yes, often they do. But short sentences with numerous multi-syllabic words and compound phrases can be exceedingly difficult to comprehend. Or, in normal English – sometimes it’s not the length of the sentence but the size of the words, that matters.
Yes, that does sound like a euphemism.
Why does using shorter words and sentences boost readability? Because we have horrible short-term memories. They’re even worse than that of a goldfish! We can only hold very few items in there (Seven plus or minus two). When we try to push in more, it becomes either a serious strain (not nice) or something gets kicked out (even worse).
The way we get past our deficient short-term memory is through something known as ‘chunking’ or ‘clumping’. In fact, this is important to most learning we do. That’s why when you started driving it is all overwhelming, while now you can think of last night’s Better Call Saul episode as you pull smoothly out of your driveway. You’ve stopped tracking each individual actions, but instead, call upon chunked routines.
With sentences, we do the same. We discard the individual words and instead only remember the underlying idea. The thing is, we can’t know what those ideas are until it has been completed.
That’s where full stops come in. It’s the ‘that’s all folks’ sign of the written word.
So how do you shorten them?
Well, by going in the opposite direction and unclumping. You take the underlying thoughts, separate them out and then turn them into distinct sentences. There are two ways to do this – bottom up and top down. Bottom up is easier. Here you look for the tell-tale signs that you’ve inserted extra thoughts into a sentence.
- Sub-clauses, which are little asides that offer up extra information like this bit here, can be identified with the words: as, which, because, since, when, while, if, whether, unless, that, etc.
Additional clauses use conjunctions, like, and, but, or, yet, so, for and nor, and are very easy to separate by replacing the conjunction. For example, in the previous sentence, you can take the last ‘and’ and replace it with a period and a ‘They’. One has become two.
For the top-down approach, which is more complicated, you first need to figure out what ideas you’ve combined, so you can separate them out and write new sentences to cover each.
The top-down approach is more complicated. Here you first need to figure out what ideas you’ve combined. Then you can separate them out and write new sentences to cover each.
Why would you ever use the more complicated way? Well, sometimes the tell-tale word strategy doesn’t work. Also, by taking time to separate out your thoughts, you’re not only clarifying your writing, but also the ideas in your own head.
And the better you understand what you’re writing about, the better you can write about it.
When a sentence is written in the passive voice, often it is found to be harder to read. (Oh man, that sentence makes my editing fingers itch!) Don’t recognize if you’re using the active or the passive voice? It’s pretty straight forward. Is the first thing or person mentioned the actor? Then you’ve got the active voice. Are they being acted upon? Congratulations, your sentence is passive.
Now, sometimes you need to use the passive voice. For example, if who is acted upon is the focus of your story. For example, ‘the city was consumed by a crime wave’ or ‘The black eye? She was hit by a door’.
Those situations are far fewer than you might think, though. So, use the active voice. It will boost your readability, lower your word count, and make your text feel livelier.
What’s an adverb? Generally, they’re the ones that end with a ‘ly’ sound, though there are many that are harder to identify. A lot of beginning writers will start experimenting with adverbs. They’ll see them as an easy way to make their text more interesting.
And they’re right. Experiment away! As long as they realize that they can’t stop there. Adverbs are a stepping stone to better writing. But for them to function that way, you need to realize they’re often lazy or unnecessary.
Some examples where they’re lazy:
- He silently walked over to the corner. We have lots of words for ‘silently walking’. You can try ‘creep’ or ‘tip-toed’, for example.
- She aggressively pushed her way to the front of the crowd. Again, this is lazy. Try ‘rammed’ or ‘shoved’.
- There were really many people. Is that right? So you’re saying there was a crowd, a rabble or a throng?
Here are some examples of where they’re unnecessary:
- “You have no idea what you’re talking about,” She angrily retorted. ‘Angrily’ is unnecessary here. Her mood should be clear from the actual retort or from some action that accompanies it.
- He really likes to run very fast. Ah yes? He doesn’t just love it? And how much faster is ‘very fast’ than ‘fast’?
- He stuttered haltingly through the speech. Doesn’t the stuttered already include the idea of stopping frequently? So why include haltingly?
And so on, and so forth. Fortunately, to help you out the readability programs will point out most adverbs, so they’re easy to remove. That’s true of all the cases we’ve covered so far.
Now we’ll move on to those things that will still boost readability but aren’t covered by readability apps.
What is the paragraph for?
Take a moment to answer the question of this heading. Have you ever thought about it before? A surprisingly large number of people haven’t. After I explained how to use paragraphs to a friend he was thunderstruck. I asked him how he’d used them before. “I just kind of used the enter key when I felt my paragraph was about the right length.”
If you’ve been using your paragraphs, in the same way, you’ve been missing a big readability-boosting opportunity. They’re not there for aesthetic reasons. They serve an entirely different purpose.
Paragraphs are there to explore and encapsulate an idea. Nothing more. Nothing less.
A well-written paragraph is a lot like a well-written sentence. It explores one idea across its length. Then when the reader encounters the white space/ period, they know this exploration has come to an end. From there they can chunk. In the case of the paragraph, it’s a bigger idea, that’s all. The advantage of using paragraphs in this way is that the white space between them ends up conveying meaning, which boosts efficiency and reduces noise.
 You can also compare paragraphs upwards and see them as mini essays. They will start with a topic sentence, explore that topic in the main body, and finish it off with a conclusion. Of course, this isn’t written in stone, but it does help. This is particularly true as the first and the last line of a paragraph are the ones most likely to stick in our minds.
What if the idea is too big for a paragraph? Then the different paragraphs will deal with the sub-parts of that idea. You can even use a subheading to introduce the overarching idea so that readers know what they’re in for. For example, the concept of paragraphs was too big for one paragraph. So I broke it up as followed:
- How most people use paragraphs.
- How that’s the wrong way to look at them.
- How to look at them instead.
- Paragraphs are like sentences and chunking.
- Essays as little paragraphs, with an introduction, body, and conclusion.
- How to deal with ideas that are bigger than one paragraph.
Can you describe your paragraphs in short sentences like this? If not, then you might be letting your ideas bleed across the white space. And that will just leave a bleedin’ mess! (It sounded funnier in my head).
Headlines, bullet points, and lists
Most people don’t read. They skim. It’s a fact. I could cry out to the stars while tearing my hair out at how people don’t read anymore. But it would make me a hypocrite. I mean, I skim a lot. That’s because nine times out of ten I’m doing research and I’m not interested in everything that an author has to say.
I appreciate it if an author helps me in that regard. The easiest way for them to do so is to use:
- Clear headings
- Well-structured paragraphs
- Lists and bullet points
We’ve already dealt with the paragraphs, so let’s talk about the others.
Just like your whole article has its heading and your paragraphs have their topic sentences, so sections need to be demarked as well. That’s what sub-headings are for.
As an extra bonus, they’re also the best way to draw skim readers deeper into the article. If they find the heading that they think is interesting or that might contain the information they’re looking for, then they’ll read more in depth. And once they’re reading one part they’re far more likely to read more.
You know the best way to get me to not read your article at all? Don’t include headings. Often, I’ll scan ahead to see if the article will go in the direction I want. If I don’t find headings, I’ll assume the writer never took the time to work out their thoughts. I don’t have time for a muddled and convoluted text. I’d rather hit ‘back’ and go look somewhere else. Most of the time, that is both less stressful and faster.
Bullet points and lists aren’t as essential but still good to use. Often, they can get a point across more clearly using fewer words. When should you use them?
- Whenever you have a long compound sentence with many sub-points consider breaking it up into bullet points.
- When there are a bunch of points that are important for the reader to remember.
- As a table of content to let people know what you’ll be dealing with in the article or under that heading.
- If you’ve got a multi-step argument that you want to introduce either in its entirety or before each step.
- If you’re giving step by step instructions.
They’re quite straightforward to use. What’s more, because they can add emphasis, they make the underlying logic of a text much easier to grasp. And like everything else on this list, the more you use them, the better you’ll get at them. So embrace them!
What the fluff?
Here is an oversimplified formula to measure the effectiveness of your article:
Arguments made / Words used
Of course, what points you make (are they inane or profound) and how you use your words (are they prison bars or wings) matter. Nonetheless, this formula is still one to keep in the back of your mind. If you can say the same thing with fewer words, then you’re text is more effective. The reason is pretty straightforward: You’re giving people more bang (information) for their buck (time invested). So, you always want to be on the lookout for fluff and willing to cut it mercilessly when you find it.
Now, let me be clear. Sometimes you need words to add character. Then you don’t want to cut them. Sometimes you don’t. Then they need to go. Where that line lies is something that you’ll have to find out with time. Yeah, not all that helpful, sorry.
Here is some more concrete advice: When you’re just starting out, it’s better to err on the side of caution and cut when you’re not sure. Yeah, you might have plenty of character in person. That does not mean it will automatically translate to the page, though.
And attempts at character that don’t succeed aren’t endearing. They’re annoying.
Of course, not so long ago, I argued the opposite. I said that you should experiment and try new things to succeed. So which is it? Will I make up my mind already? Okay, okay! Geez, tough crowd. How about:
Experiment on your own dime and cut ruthlessly when it’s somebody else that’s paying.
Sound good? Great! Let’s move on to specifics. Some words make much better candidates for cutting than others:
- That. It can’t always go, but it can go far more often than people realize. ‘This is the house that Jack built’ won’t be any weaker without the ‘that’.
Very, really and quite. If you can’t find better words to strengthen your statement, you’re in trouble. She really wanted to an ice cream? How about she was desperate for an ice cream?
Personally, I believe and I think. Yes, sometimes you need to hedge. That’s okay. But not half as often as most people do – particularly not online. People aren’t here to read your hedging. They’ve already got their own insecurities to deal with. Get to the point.
Perhaps and Just. Perhaps you can just get on with it? We’d appreciate it if you would.
If you find that you use one of these words a lot (Edit Minion can help you there as it lists the frequency of words). Then make it a habit to go through your text with the find command (CTRL + F) and look which instances can be cut. Do that a couple of times with different texts and you’ll become more aware of your problem words. From there, not only your current text but also your overall writing will improve.
In fact, that last point is true for everything I’ve mentioned. The more often you pay attention to this stuff, the more you’ll internalize the ideas. From there you’ll come to apply them automatically. For example, in the first few months, I used the Hemingway App, the reading level of my first drafts dropped from high school to about sixth grade. And that without sacrificing any of my ability to express myself. So do start using at least a few of them.
Should you always apply them blindly? No. None of these readability ideas are written in stone. There are always moments that you should break the rules or ignore the suggestion by the app. In fact, most rules – including those of grammar – should be ignored every so now and then. But it has to be a conscious choice and it can’t be all the time. Otherwise, people will think you’re sloppy. They’d be right.
In short, start applying these rules consciously so that they become habits. And then, sometimes, consciously ignore those habits. If you can do that, then you boost your readability without sacrificing either your personality or your creativity.