For a recent class in Advanced Writing for Health Communicators, we had to compare the websites of the Boston Ballet and the Boston Red Sox. The Boston Ballet website is sophisticated, formal, and elegant; the Red Sox website is bright, energetic, and busy. The writing and the readability of the websites are also very different indicating that they are purposefully trying to reach very different audiences. So what exactly is readability and how can you gauge the readability of your own documents? Read on to learn more.
Readability and readability tests
Readability is the ease with which your writing can be read. Readability tests are mathematical calculations typically based on the difficulty of the words used (i.e., the average number of syllables per word) and the difficulty of the sentences (i.e., the average sentence length). For this article, I will discuss only the ones that are freely available and built into Microsoft Word.
Pros and cons of readability tests
Readability tests are only predictions—they are not the definitive measure of how good your writing is. They should be used as a quick assessment during the writing/revision process. As Cheryl Stephens writes in her article All About Readability, readability tests cannot measure reader interest or enjoyment. They also cannot measure if your content is presented in a logical order, how well complex ideas are presented, or if your vocabulary is appropriate. Readability tests are best used as a screening device and they should not be the only tool you use for assessing your text. They are also good for gauging improvement in your writing if you are trying to learn how to write more clearly because they provide a quantitative number for comparison.
Comparing ballet and baseball
For my class, I compared the readability stats of the history page of the Boston Ballet website and the 2010s history timeline of the Red Sox website. In Microsoft Word, the readability statistics are available in the Review toolbar under Spelling and Grammar. You may need to make sure that “Check grammar with spelling” is checked under Proofing in the Options menu first.
The Ballet site had more words per sentence and more characters per word than the Red Sox site (i.e., used bigger words and longer sentences). Readability testing results are listed below:
The test simply finds the percentage of sentences in the document that are written in the passive voice. For writing in plain language, one of the first tips is to write in the active vs. the passive voice. In the active voice, the subject does the acting (e.g., the cat chased the dog); in the passive, the subject is acted on (e.g., the dog was chased by the cat). (I use these examples because that is the way it happens in my house.) Passive sentences flip around the sequence and natural order of the sentence and are more difficult to read. There is no strict guideline, except try to keep it as low as possible. Greater than 5% would be too high for plain writing. Surprisingly, the Red Sox site not only had more passive sentences than the Ballet site, but at 12%, it was well above an appropriate level. Not only are active sentences easier to read, they have more energy, which is exactly what they should be going for on the Red Sox site. I expected that the proportion of passive sentences would have been higher for the Ballet site—the fact that it is not shows that they had a good writer.
Flesch Reading Ease
The Flesch Reading Ease test rates text on a 100-point scale. The higher the score, the easier it is to understand the document. For most standard documents for a general audience, the score should be between 60 and 70. Neither the Ballet or Red Sox site made this cutoff (19.6 and 51.5, respectively), but the Ballet website was definitely low indicating that they were not even attempting to reach a “general” audience. The Red Sox site is obviously trying to reach this general audience but missed the mark.
Flesch-Kincaid Grade Level
The Flesch-Kincaid Grade Level test rates text on a U.S. school grade level (e.g., a score of 8.0 means that an eighth grader can understand the document). Most documents for a general audience should score between 7.0 to 8.0. Again, both websites scored outside of this ideal range for a general audience. The Red Sox site read at a grade 10 level and the Ballet site read at a senior year in university level. The Ballet site appears to be focusing on people who are university/college-educated (and who potentially have money and will buy tickets and/or donate) and the Red Sox site is geared toward those with a lower high school education.
The takeaway from these tests is that both websites are trying to reach a different audience with their writing, although the Red Sox site was the less successful of the two. The Red Sox site should be geared toward a more general audience; therefore, the passive sentences should be at a minimum, the Flesch Reading Ease test score should be well about 60, and the Flesch-Kincaid Grade Level needs to drop a few years.
Other methods of testing readability
Here are some other suggestions for testing and improving the readability of your work:
Identify your audience
The most important thing you can do to make sure that you are reaching your audience is to determine who your audience is. Before you even start writing, ask yourself:
“If you can‘t explain it simply, you don‘t understand it well enough.” -Albert Einstein
I edit so many research papers in which the writers take the most convoluted and circuitous routes to get a simple point across. Instead of being impressive and scholarly, it is just confusing. Your writing is more effective—and your reader can actually understand it—when you use plain language.
The “Dizzy Awards” have been given out by the Texas Heart Institute Journal for the past 30 years for excellence in “unintentionally comical, bewildering, or downright terrible” medical writing (they don’t name names). Check out this gem that was published in a prominent medical journal:
“The development of Goodpasture’s disease may be considered an autoimmune ‘conformeropathy’ that involves perturbation of the quaternary structure of the A345NC1 hexamer, inducing a pathogenic conformational change in the A3NC1 and a5NC1 subunits, which in turn elicits an autoimmune response.” (2012 Dizzy Award Winner)
If the reader has to re-read each paragraph multiple times to understand your point, you have lost them. Writing in plain language is not a “dumbing down” of your work—it is ensuring that your reader will understand it the first time that they read it.
Writing in plain language is a lot harder than it sounds. You may have heard this quote: “If I had more time, I would have written a shorter letter.” It is actually quite difficult to write in plain language. But I am here to give you some tips and tricks!
Use short sentences
A general rule of thumb is to keep your sentences to an average of 20 words or fewer with one idea per sentence. This is especially true for the lead sentence in a paragraph. If your sentences are running multiple lines with many commas and/or semicolons, break them up into smaller sentences. Longer sentences are not forbidden—just try to keep most short for easier reading. Below is an example of the type of sentences I see all the time (shiver!). This one should have been a short sentence and a concise table:
“The greater pain caused by larger-size tubes was the result of increased pain during the insertion of the tube and pain while the tube was in situ, with no pain difference during tube removal (insertion: size < 10F, MPS 2 [IQR 1–2]; size 10–14F, MPS 2 [IQR 1–3]; size 15–20F, MPS 2 [IQR 1–3]; size > 20F, MPS 2 [IQR 2–3]; χ2, 3 df = 8.12, P = .044, Kruskal-Wallis; χ2 trend, 1 df = 7.2, P =.009. in situ: size < 10F, MPS 2 [IQR 1–3]; size 10–14F, MPS 2 [IQR 1–2]; size 15–20F, MPS 2 [IQR 2–3]; size > 20F, MPS 2 [IQR 2–3]; χ2, 3 df = 11.75, P = .008, Kruskal-Wallis; χ2 trend, 1 df = 6.2, P = .015. removal: size < 10F, MPS 2 [IQR 1–2]; size 10–14F, MPS 1 [IQR 1–2]; size 15–20F, MPS 2 [IQR 1–2]; size > 20F, MPS 1 [IQR 1–2]; χ2, 3 df = 2.7, P= .44, Kruskal-Wallis; χ2 trend, 1 df = 1.0, P = .31 (Fig 2).” (2010 Dizzy Award Winner)
Use the active versus the passive voice
In the active voice, the subject does the acting; in the passive voice, the subject is acted on. For example, “constipation is reported in over 33 million adults…” (2009 Dizzy Award Winner) should be “33 million adults reported constipation…” (and reports can’t appear in patients!).
Use common, everyday words
Basically, use the simplest word for the job. For example, use “use” versus “utilize.” Technical terms are fine, but be aware that your reading audience may come from different research areas or other countries that use different technical terms. Rule number two in George Orwell’s Six Rules for Writers is “never use a long word where a short one will do” and number five is “never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word, or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent.” Listen to George, he knows what he is talking about.
Define all of your abbreviations or acronyms on first use
Sure, it may be a common abbreviation used by everyone in your nuclear physics lab, but be aware that people from outside your lab or from other countries may use different ones. People from other specialties may use the same acronym for an entirely different term. In medicine, “CA” is the abbreviation for cancer, cardiac arrest, chronologic age, contrast angiography, and others. Avoid confusion and define your terms. And remember to define on first use in both the abstract and the body of the paper.
Avoid using abbreviations or acronyms for convenience
Many authors will devise their own sets of abbreviations or acronyms for use in a single paper. These ones are not in common use and are devised by the author so that they do not have to write certain phrases over and over again (lazy!). For clarity, keep the terms expanded. The exception to this is in tables where space is at a premium. Even then, the abbreviation(s) should be clearly defined in the caption or in a footnote. For example, in “Because it is both a common and serious condition, elderly nursing home (NH) residents are…” (2010 Dizzy Award Winner), nursing home should be left expanded—and being a resident is not a common and serious condition to top it off.
Write in the positive versus the negative
Each negative term used obscures the clarity of your message exponentially. Look at these examples:
Avoid redundant and ambiguous words
Phrases such as fewer in number, future plans, and sum total are all redundant (i.e., both words mean the same thing). An example of redundancy is the “one solitary” used in this sentence (and is there an Alcoholic Skeletal Myopathy Journal for this to be described in?):
“Except for one solitary case, acute cardiac dysfunction has not been described previously in alcoholic skeletal myopathy.” (2010 Dizzy Award Winner)
Finally, your spellchecker is your friend. Don’t forget to use it. There are also a number of other programs and macros that can be used to spot and correct problems, but that is another adventure.
Happy adventures in editing!
1. Never use a metaphor, simile, or other figure of speech that you are used to seeing in print.
2. Never use a long word where a short one will do.
3. If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out.
4. Never use the passive where you can use the active.
5. Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent.
6. Break any of these rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous.
Politics and the English Language (1946)
I am freelance copy editor, proofreader, and instructor based in Toronto. Enjoy my adventures in editing! (Note: I transferred my blog over and lost my comments along the way, unfortunately. Please add new ones.)