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:
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.)