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Power Writing Skills: What's Your Readability Score?

Jul 23, 2008
We're all familiar with the maxim that says, "That which gets measured, gets done." In the same vein, I'd like to offer another important maxim; this one falls under the heading of power writing skills. The new maxim goes like this: "If you want results from your writing, first you must be read."

In other words, you may write fine memos, reports, or literally any other kind of document. But, if no one reads what you've written, there is no chance you'll get your audience to respond. Quite simply, people in your audience must read what you've written before they can act or think in the way you've asked them to.

And, one of the key elements in getting them to read is to write at level that's appropriate. For general audiences, you likely will aim at the reading ability level of a high school audience. That's where most newspapers and magazines head.

Let me give you an example from my own writing. The first draft of a business communication article I'd written had a rating of 49 on the Flesch readability index (created by Rudolph Flesch, a pioneer in the concept of readability and its improvement). That meant it would be readily understood by someone who reads at the level expected of college students in their early years.

To get the score, I used the statistical tools in a stand-alone spelling program. And, once I'd seen the score, I wanted to bring it down to at least a senior high school level.

How?

When working with the Flesch index, we bring the score down using one or more of these techniques:
* reducing the proportion of passive verbs
* cutting back on the average number of words per sentence
* reducing the average number of letters per word
* using fewer words with three or more syllables.

In the first edit, I replaced passive verbs (is, are, were, be) with active verbs (verbs that imply an action or thought). Wherever I found the words 'is', 'are', or 'be' I tried to rewrite using an active verb. Not to necessarily get rid of them all, but to stay below the 10% level. And, here's a helpful hint: Use the Find & Replace function of your word processor to find the passive verbs.

In subsequent edits, I looked for sentences I could break in two, and I replaced longer words with shorter words. Normally, that's not much of a challenge, although I need to be careful not to end up with a series of choppy sentences that all use the same structure.

After making the edits described above, the article had a readability score of 59. That means a person with a high school education should be able to understand it. The editing process involved:
* reducing the number of words/sentence from 16 to 13
* increasing the number of sentences from 31 to 34
* reducing the number of words with at least three syllables from 17% to 16%
* reduced the number of passive verbs (but didn't get a count).

All of this took about 15 minutes of editing time. Another hour or less would likely have allowed me to push the score down further, perhaps into the junior high school level. But, even with that quick series of edits, I made the article accessible to a much larger audience, increasing the odds the article would be read, and readers would respond in the way I'd recommended in the article.

In summary, add the concept of readability to your power writing skills toolbox. By increasing readability, you immediately increase the number of potential readers, and increase the odds that readers will respond as you've requested.
About the Author
Robert F. Abbott is also the author of 3 Easy Ways to Power Up Your Writing, a booklet that will enhance your power writing skills, to make your words more persuasive and more likely to get results
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