Can Your Customers Read What You Write?

You've just read my Have It Your Wayarticle, right? According to my Microsoft Word program, that article has a Flesch-Kincaid Grade Level of 7.6 (which means folks half way through the 7thgrade can understand that article). It has a Flesch Reading Ease score of 63.3 percent (which means 63.3 percent of all readers can understand what they've read). There are 13.8 words per sentence (those for whom English is a second language shouldn't have much trouble reading the article). The average word has 4.6 characters (pretty good). And 5 percent of the sentences are written in the passive voice (not bad). According to a different program, my article has a Fog Index of 8.7 (another grade-level reading score).

Is your head hurting yet? Number-talk has that effect on some folks. But these are numbers you'll want to consider when you evaluate the copy that is going to persuade your customers to take the action you want them to take.

Readability scales and scores

Most readability indexes measure writing complexity in terms of a school grade level or a percentage of the population that should be able to understand the writing. The scales offer you a thumbnail idea of how many folks you'll be able to reach with your writing. And they give you a rough way of determining if your writing is geared to the audience you are trying to reach.

If you are trying to reach the widest audience possible, you'll want to work at reducing the grade level of your writing (or increasing the percent of readers who can understand your writing). However, if you know your target audience routinely reads at an 11th-grade level, you can write at an 11th-grade level.

However, you can't take any readability index as gospel, nor should you evaluate a piece of copy out of context. Sometimes more complex words-of-the-trade inflate your score, yet these are the very words your audience looks for. For example, I talk a lot about Persuasion Architecture, two words that elevate readability scores.  But I can't get around using those words, and our potential clients expect those words.  That said, here's a note especially to my B2B readers:  this does not mean you want to go throwing lots of jargon and biz-talk into your copy if your goal is to reach the largest audience possible!  As you'll see, the majority of bestselling business books are targeted to a 5th-8th grade reading level (at Future Now, Inc., we shoot for an 8th grade reading level).

Readability examples

In an oft-cited LiveJournal article on readability, Michael A. Burstein reviewed scores for ten bestselling authors based on work by James V. Smith, Jr. (Fiction Writer's Brainstormer). Smith discovered that readability scores among bestselling authors proved surprising similar ... and low!

  • The percentage of sentences using passive voice ranged from 2.3% to 13.43%

  • The number of characters per word ranged from 3.72 to 4.58

  • The percent of the population able to read the writings ranged from 72.34% to 91.84%, with an average of 83.1%

  • The Flesch-Kincaid Grade Level score ranged from 2.68 to 6.3, with an average grade level of 4.41

Burstein summarized, "In other words, [Smith] found that the bestselling writers were aiming their prose, prose that is read by a majority of adult readers in the country, at a fourth grade level."2

In a quick take on top-selling business books, Martin Kihn revealed that Donald Trump's Trump: Think Like a Billionaire is grade 5 reading material, while Marcus Buckingham and Donald O. Clifton's Now, Discover Your Strengthsis grade 10 reading material. The wildly popular Who Moved My Cheese?scores at the 7th-grade level, as does its counterpart Who Moved My Cheese? For Kids.3

Then there's the Fog Index, a simpler scale based on the number of words in sentences and the number of syllables in words. According to this scale, the poet John Milton writes at a grade level of 26 (whoa!), and Lincoln's Gettysburg Address gets a grade-level score of 15. To Kill a Mockingbird, perennially on school reading lists, gets a score of 5.4

General guidelines

Smith suggests the following as his "Writing Ideal Standard,"

  • No more than 4.25 characters per word

  • No more than 5% passive voice

  • No less than an 80% readability on the Flesch Reading Ease scale

  • A Flesch-Kincaid Grade Level between 4 and 65

Robert Gunning, developer of the Fog Index, believed a Fog Index higher than 13 puts you in the danger zone. Gunning correlated higher magazine sales with lower Fog Indexes and felt "16 to 20 words was a good average word count for sentences in newspaper articles."6

In Kihn's survey of business bestsellers, seven of the ten books scored between a 5th and 8thgrade reading level.  The lower you can keep the reading level without sacrificing meaning and credibility, the better.

Readability tools

Because every readability scale relies on an equation, it's easy for software programs to figure out the readability scores for the copy you create. If you use Microsoft Word as your word processor, all you have to do is run a spelling and grammar check (under Tools - Options - Spelling and Grammar, make sure you select the box that says "Show readability statistics"). When the check is over, Word gives you the numbers, which you can use as guidelines.

There's also Readability.info. With this free tool, you can upload a Word document or specify a url and generate a list of readability scores that include the Fog Index, Flesch Index and more. The site gives you some insight into what the score actually measures.

These should get you started.

Beyond the numbers

Obviously, numbers alone can't make you a good writer. Many other factors contribute to readable, comprehensible writing.

Denny Hatch notes in his article discussing the Fog Index:

  • Making something easier to read so you increase readability doesn't necessarily increase comprehension, a factor that can depend on qualities like interest and appeal;

  • Comprehension also relies on how sentences relate to their surrounding sentences and how paragraphs relate to each other;

  • And comprehension further depends on the rhythm and flow of language - comprehensible copy doesn't just read right, it sounds right.7

He concludes,

Only then will you succeed at the art that none of us will ever fully master-using the tools and the building blocks in the storehouse of language to create a deceptively simple structure of complex thoughts and emotions to entice readers and move them to action. The paradox is, of course, that if the simplicity is obvious, you've failed.8

Steps to improving readability and comprehension

If your readability scores seem wildly out of line with your audience's abilities, here are a few strategies for making repairs:

  • Rewrite passive sentences so they become active sentences

  • Remove unnecessary words - these might be articles like "the" or "a", extraneous words like "that", adjectives that don't pack a meaningful punch or anything that isn't helping your message

  • Replace 50-cent words with 5-cent words whenever the difference isn't critical to your style or meaning

  • Let your verbs do the work you'd otherwise assign your adjectives

  • Take the time to learn how your customers talk about your product or service so you can write to them in language they actually use

  • Run your copy through our We-We Monitor to get an idea how customer-focused your writing is - folks are more likely to understand writing that is aimed at them rather than you

The absolute best thing you can do when it comes to improving readability and comprehension in your persuasive copy? Sign up for the Persuasive Online Copywriting Seminar. What you should write intimately relates to what your audience wants and is prepared to read. I guarantee there's truly no better way to learn how to keep your customers understanding and hanging on your every word!

1 "Flesch-Kincaid: Threat or Menace?" Michael A. Burstein. March 23, 2005. http://mabfan.livejournal.com/105017.html.

2 ibid.

3 "No Consultant Left Behind: Business Book Authors Don't Necessarily Write at the Level of their Peers." Martin Kihn. FastCompany.com. Issue 90, p 31. January 2005. http://www.fastcompany.com/magazine/90/debunk.html. Scores provided for the selected bestselling business books are based on the average between the Dale-Chall and Flesch Reading Ease scales.

4"Are People Reading What You Write?" Denny Hatch. Denny Hatch's Business Common Sense. Vol 2, Issue 9. September 19, 2006. p 3. http://new.businesscommonsense.com/story/story.bsp?sid=36843&var=story.

5 Burstein, op. cit.

6 Hatch, op. cit. p 3.

7 Hatch, op. cit. p 4.

8 Hatch, op. cit. p 4.

Volume 139: 9/15/06


Contact Us


Bi-Monthly Online Conversion Rate Marketing Newsletter:

We Value Your Privacy!

  • Cardscan
  • ProFlowers
  • GE
  • Leo Schachter Diamonds
  • Overstock.com
  • SAS
  • Disney
  • Gatelys.com
  • NBC Universal
  • PriceWaterhouseCoopers
  • Volvo International
  • Southern Company
  • BuyTelco
  • Allegis Group's Thingamajob
  • WebEx
  • CafePress
  • Elance