By Ricky Brandt
In the public relations industry, we’re always trying to target our message—which necessarily implies that some messages will be written with complex wording, while others will have a very laid back feel. Sometimes our writing requires the use of sophisticated vocabulary, while others should be as simple as possible. In 1948, Rudolph Flesch developed the Flesch Reading Ease Scale, which made it possible for writers to take an objective look at their writing and judge its complexity. The U.S. Navy has been using it since 1975 to deliver clearer written commands. Further research created the Flesch-Kincaid Grade Scale, which allows writers to see the grade level that corresponds with their Reading Ease score. Today, these scales have even been integrated into Microsoft Word, which is why I am only focusing on these measures as opposed to other readability tests. These measurement systems can be invaluable to PR professionals, but, like all things, they have their flaws.
The Math Behind Readability
While we could brainstorm a number of objective measures related to words or sentence structure, when it comes to readability, less is more. Instead of laboriously calculating a number of statistics, Flesch only measures the average sentence length (ASL) and average number of syllables per word (ASW). The formula will give you a score from 0 to 100. One hundred is considered to be very easy, while zero is very complex. Anything from 60-70 is written in “plain English.” Most college students are expected to read below 40.
Making Readability Work For You
Measuring readability is not a replacement for abiding to important writing conventions. Therefore, you should only use it in combination with your other proof reading tactics, for feedback, and to track your progress. For example, the Flesch scale can be a great way to measure if your writing is getting way over the head of your intended audience, or is coming off more simplistic than you intended. Imagine writing a business letter that scored 26, or a Facebook description that scored an 83! No one would take you seriously because your writing would not be appropriate to the medium. Facebook posts should be easier to understand than business letters, because they are read differently. Additionally, using readability scores to measure your writing will show your improvement over time and give you the confidence you need in order to write.
The Pitfalls of Readability
At its core, readability measurements are exactly what they sound like: measures of how readable your content is. It cannot tell you anything about your content. For example, the sentence “the quick brown fox jumped over the lazy dog” will score the exact same as the sentence “the dog brown lazy jumped fox over the quick“. Further, you could score an easy 80, which would be understood by an average 11 year-old, while your paper discusses the intricacies of nuclear physics- it just depends on the words you used. In short, readability is not a replacement for proofreading. Like most things in life, the system can be beaten. But despite these shortcomings, readability tests can still improve the effectiveness of your writing.
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