Flesch out Your Words: How Accessible Is Your Writing?

I used to think I was a great writer.

Of course, that was back in eighth grade, before I had any serious education or formal training in the craft. Back then, all it took to be a great writer (in my mind, at least) was a great vocabulary and a desire to cram big words into small thoughts.

Ahh, it was a simpler time. You can imagine my surprise when I received feedback in my first serious writing class.

I saw red. Lots of red.

As my teacher informed me through her merciless editing, I wasn’t the literary titan I thought I was at the tender age of 13. I could put words to paper, but I hadn’t internalized one of the basic rules of writing that all of us come to grips with at some point.

Writing isn’t about showing off

You’ve probably heard this sentiment in one form or another, right?

“Small minds use big words.”

“Say it in Plain English.”

“Avoid ten dollar words.”

These ideas are widespread throughout journalism, news writing, and any other written endeavor meant to be consumed by the public. Simple is usually better when you’re trying to inform. It’s hard to educate readers about a topic if you’re more interested in showing off your thesaurus-like brain than actually explaining your ideas.

I’m talking about the idea of accessibility, or, how easy it is for readers to understand a piece of content.

The concept of writing accessibility used to be kind of abstract, but in the mid 1940’s, two men (Rudolf Flesch and J. Peter Kincaid) developed a numerical system of quantifying reading ease that we still use today. Enter:

The Flesch-Kincaid Grade Level

The Flesch-Kincaid Grade Level is a simple way to assess the complexity of a written work, using a ranking system based on U.S. education grades.

The idea is that the number of words, syllables, special characters, and clauses that each document has can be calculated with a formula and objectively ranked to determine how educated the average reader needs to be to understand it.

Most versions of Microsoft Word come equipped with this feature these days, and plenty of sites online like Readability-Score.com will do it for you too.

Let’s look at some examples, courtesy of the Internet:

  • Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone: 5.8
  • Tom Clancy novels: 7.8
  • This article: 8.6
  • Academic essay about reading level: 11.6
  • The Affordable Care Act: 13.0

Pretty straightforward. But does this so-called Flesch-Kincaid Grade Level have anything to do with writing quality?

Not at all – it only measures how accessible a piece of writing is. If you take a look at the link above, you’ll see some classic literary heroes (like Ernest Hemingway and Jane Austen) ranking pretty low on the old Grade Level score.

From an artistic standpoint, accessibility might be the last thing you’re interested in. Nobody says your magnum opus needs to be understood by the average reader.

But when looking through the lens of copywriting and content marketing (as we so often love to do here at Words by a Pro), your Flesch-Kincaid score can make or break your writing.

Content Marketing and Readability

One of the cardinal rules of content marketing is know your audience. This means tailoring your writing to fit the expectations and needs of your market such that your material resonates with them and makes them want to take action. Your topics have to be relevant. Your sources have to be honest. And your writing has to hit that literary sweet spot in their minds.

This brings us back to the Grade Level score and its use of numbers to quantify how difficult a piece of writing is.

With clear metrics to guide us, we can easily gauge whether our copy is too simple or too complex for our target markets. Complex writing may fly right over a reader’s head, while writing that’s too simplistic can sound patronizing. There’s a definite middle ground that, in part, determines whether a piece of copy is effective.

It’s also worth noting that low Flesch-Kincaid scores don’t mean that your writing is unintelligent; in many cases, it’s the opposite. If you can explain complex ideas in simple ways, it’s generally considered a good thing.

But regardless of whether you’re aiming for complexity or simplicity, the Flesh-Kincaid Grade Level gives you an easy way to analyze your writing and make sure you’re speaking in a way that makes sense to your audience.

Greg Hill is a content creator from the Midwest who refuses to acknowledge snow in the middle of March.