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Are Your Articles Too Complicated for Your Audience?

The other day, Steven Carr and I were discussing what constitutes good writing. At one point, he asked what the average level of readability an article should be. I had no clue. Honestly, I didn’t even fully understand what readability meant. How did I not know?

The question stuck with me and thus began my research binge.

So, What Does Readability Mean?

It’s easy to jump to conclusions about definitions. But, understanding definitions is kind of like understanding literature. Learning about the context in which a work was written opens your mind to a whole new understanding of the piece. Yes - your interpretation is important, but it is also crucial to understand what the work is actually saying before you analyze what it means. So, why not treat our words the same?

Specifically defined, readability is the ease at which a reader can understand a written text.

Seems simple enough, but What Influences Readability?

Readability is more than deciding whether you can visibly read the article or not. It’s asking how clear the article is to the reader. But what are the different elements that help identify readability levels?

There are several factors that are considered:

• Actual Content - difficulty of vocabulary and syntax (the set of rules and principles that govern the structure of a sentence)

• Presentation - font size, line height, and line length

• Audience Factors - prior knowledge, reading ability, and motivation of the reader

Which Leads to…Readability Formulas

Did you know that you can measure readability using a scientific formula? In fact, there are a variety of formulas that scientifically measure readability. The most popular being the Flesch Reading Formula. Scores have corresponding grade levels. To give you an idea, Harry Potter’s score is an 80.6 on the Flesch scale which is a 5th-grade reading level.

What was unbeknownst to me was that the average American reads on a 7th or 8th-grade level? Which means, that we should shoot to minimize the complexity of our articles.

Why Does Readability Matter?

Readability influences how shareable content can be whether it’s an online article or a popular novel. It determines how long a person stays. It’s hard to communicate when information is inaccessible to the audience. If you meet people where they are at, you will be surprised at the effectiveness.

What Now?

Don’t be ashamed of writing articles on 5th-9th-grade levels

In fact, we should embrace it. According to an article on Contently, even “Ernest [Hemingway, author of the Old Man and the Sea,] the Pulitzer and Nobel Prize Winning novelist whose work shaped 20th Century fiction, wrote for elementary schoolers.” That within itself should give you the confidence to write simply. Note: In fact, many bestselling authors wrote 9th-grade reading level and under.

Know your audience

You might not have control over your audience but, what you do have control knowing and understanding who your audience is. If you are writing to a teenager, you are less likely to use the same language you would use when writing to a middle-aged demographic. Plus, you might have a demographic that averages a higher level of reading and if you write on a lower level, your message might not translate well.

Measure your content

If you are like me, you might not be jumping out of your seat to measure your content with a Scientific formula. In fact, that thought makes me want to throw my computer out of a window. Lucky for me and you, there are websites to do that for you. Places like Readable or Web Page FX.

Overall, be aware of your writing and readability. My job is to write content for websites and many times I have to reread and reread (again) the content to make sure it is accessible to the audience.