How To Know If Readers Can Read What You’ve Written

Most blogs are written with a focus. Not this one, but that’s another story. Writers tend to focus on topics that are of interest to their target reader. The successful topics can be dieting, investing, travel, dating, fashion, politics, personal productivity or any of a zillion other ideas. The most important thing might be finding a topic that will appeal to a wide enough audience to build a collection of readers who will return on a regular basis. In this column, I’m going to suggest a secondary reason blogs (and books) may or may not appeal to the desired audience.

The grade level of your writing.

See Dick read. See Jane read faster and comprehend better. See Spot casually chomping down on the interior of the book because he isn’t capable of reading anything at all and the book had an olfactory residue implying a tasty repast.

If you write text that is too easy or too difficult for your target audience to read, you probably won’t have many readers at all. While we can easily see the difference in the three readers in the prior paragraph, what we really need is a simple way to quantify the difficulty of various passages of text.

Back when I was creating policy forms for insurance companies, one of the goals was to pass a readability test. The various state insurance departments required us to calculate a Flesch score for each policy we submitted to prove that the policy could possibly be read and understood. The formula we had to use was created back in the forties and required us to count the number of words, the number of syllables, and the number of sentences in the policy. Scores were like grades in school, ranging between 0 and 100. The higher your score, the better. The standards usually required policy forms to score 40 or higher. Something with this score usually challenges a college graduate due to the complexity of the material, and yet it was a very difficult score to reach when writing an insurance policy. I quickly learned a few tricks to help reach higher scores:

  • Lists.  Each list item counts as a sentence.  List items can be short sentence fragments.
  • Use semicolons instead of commas where possible.  A semi-colon counts as starting a new sentence; I figured out how to insert semi-colons where a comma might work.
  • Two or three short sentences instead of one.  The word count will be longer than one long sentence.  The sentence count will be higher.  Those features help your score.
  • No words with three syllables.  If only I could find another word for “syllable.”

Back in the dark ages of the early seventies, I had to count syllables and words and sentences manually, and it was easy to mess up.  I frequently counted the numbers multiple times, marking up a form to help keep the counts straight.  By the mid-seventies software had started to show up that did a fairly good job even though it was written in FORTRAN.  Now, of course, there is much better software.

A really great site is at  Readability Formulas .  This site allows you to copy up to 2000 words into a box, press a button, and see seven different readability scores.  To give you an idea of how different works score, here are the scores for the first few pages of a handful of very different books:

  • Ray Brehm, The Author Start-Up, an Amazon best-seller about writing books.  89.5 (4th-5th grade level).
  • J. K. Rowling, Harry Potter and the Sorceror’s Stone.  76.5 (5th-6th grade level)
  • Chandler Bolt, Published, another Amazon best-seller about writing books.  75.4 (6th-7th grade level).
  • Steven King, The Stand.  73.1 (7th-8th grade level).
  • Dr. Seuss, Green Eggs and Ham.  73.1 (7th-8th grade level for the entire book).
  • Jim Molinelli, Remodel, an Amazon best-seller about remodeling your home.  55.9 (9th-11th grade level).
  • F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Great Gatsby.  46.5 (college students).
  • Every policy form I ever did, about 40.0 (advanced college degree).

My typical blog entry seems to center around scores near 60, which aims at 11th-12th grade, and the first few chapters of How Much Extra Does No Cheese Cost only hit 63, so perhaps I need to get to work making my writing easier to read.  Perhaps because of today’s topic, this column scored over 71, a definite improvement.  I’m not the only one worrying about words; here are the Monkees:

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