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How Can I Determine If My Readers Will Understand What I Write?

Mar 11, 2008
Your writing skills may be superb, but what if your readers can't understand your text? Technically, your readers may have problems with your document's "readability," but what truly counts is the document's "understandability." Most average literate Americans can read a well-crafted document; the question is will readers understand the text in the same manner you want them to? This is where determining the "understandability" of your documents makes more sense. A scholarly piece of text is of no value to a sixth grade readability level reader. Similarly, a disoriented piece of writing makes no sense to a reader with a twelfth-grade readability level. It's always advised to determine the reading level of the text for the targeted readership before publishing it.

A handful of popular readability formulas are available to address this issue. These formulas apply a mathematical application to a text to determine its readability grade level. Presently, there are more than 200 readability formulas with varying degrees of accuracy; the more accurate ones include: Dale-Chall, Flesch Readability Ease, Flesch-Kincaid Readability Formula, Fry Graph, etc. No matter how many readability formulas you use on your documents, the best approach is to write clear, uncluttered, short-sentenced documents, with the use of comprehensible words.

MS-Word has an inbuilt feature that can assess the readability of a document and give you the results of Flesch Readability Ease and Flesch-Kincaid Readability Formulas. Here are the instructions to determine the readability of a text in MS-Word:

1. Write or copy the text on a Word file.
2. On the Tools menu, click Options, and then select Spelling and Grammar.
3. Select the Check Grammar with Spelling check box.
4. Select the Show Readability Statistics check box, and then click OK.
5. On the Standard toolbar, click Spelling and Grammar...it will display the information about the reading level of the document

This is the easiest option to determine the readability level of your text. However, if you want to apply different formulas on your text, then you'll have to perform manual calculations under the respective readability formulas. Visit my website, http://ReadabilityFormulas.com, for instructions on calculating readability formulas.

The crux of any document is to convey a message. Keeping in mind the target audience, your text should communicate the contents effectively. If the readability level of your text is too hard for your target audience, your first reaction should be to simplify the text. Simplifying your text reduces the readability level and ensures your target reader can process and comprehend your material.

Here are some tips to simplify your writing to reduce the reading level of your document:

1. Use short sentences with commonly used words. This is generally the best way to write clearly for any audience. Try to restrict sentence length to 20 words. Simplicity in documents is vital. Studies have shown that majority of Americans have average reading capabilities. If you can re-word or re-state your ideas using simpler words, then do so (unless the target audience has higher reading grade level).

2. Besides simplicity in your documents, be brief and precise in your writing. If you can state the same point fewer words, then don't go on elaborating. Every reader prefers small text that conveys the information precisely.

3. Use headings, sub-headings, bullets, numbers, tables, highlighters, and text formatting (bold, italicized, underline etc.), wherever possible. You can feel the visual difference in your documents with the astute use of these tools. If a document appears inviting, the readers' interest will grow towards reading it.

4. Avoid using polysyllabic words (words with more than three syllables), as many readers find such words frustrating to read.

5. The best approach to simplify a document is to compare it with a popular text that also has the same target audience and is considered ideal by that audience.

After determining the readability level of the text, you can modify your text to match the desired readability level. Of course, editing and rewriting might be useless if you don't know the grade level of your target audience. Readability formulas will only assess the readability of the text, not of the reader.
About the Author
Jesse Dawson recommends using Whitesmoke Software to improve your writing and make your documents more readable. Dawson is the author of "Can YOU Read Me Now?," a free e-book on using readability formulas to write better, available at www.ReadabilityFormulas.com.
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