Is your writing readable for your audience? Here’s how readability tests can strengthen your content
Fun fact: the CIA World Factbook says the literacy rate of most highly developed nations is 99 percent. So most people in the developed world reads, right? Not quite. Though 99 percent of those aged 15 and older can read and write, that percentage omits one thing: it doesn’t rate how well people can read and write.
That’s an important distinction to make if you are a brand or content creator. What is your audience’s reading level? What do they want to read? This is where readability—the ease in which a reader understands text—becomes essential to content creation.
In this post, we’ll detail a few ways that brands and content creators can test the readability of their content and fine tune their content for their audiences. Here’s how readability tests—like the Flesch-Kincaid—can strengthen your content marketing.
It doesn’t exactly roll off the tongue, but you’ve probably heard content marketers refer to “Flesch-Kincaid” in conversation or content. And for good reason: Flesch-Kincaid is a test that measures and grades the readability of text. It’s named after readability experts Rudolf Flesch and J. Peter Kincaid, and the US military was the first to adopt this test to develop easy-to-read, understandable training manuals.
There are two formulas used. The Flesch Reading Ease test calculates a score from as high as 515.1 (one sentence in Swann’s Way) to the low 30s and 20s. The higher the score, the more readable the content. The lower the score, the harder content is to read.
The exact formula looks like this:
But don’t worry about doing calculations just yet.
The Flesch-Kincaid Grade Level formula, on the other hand, provides a shorthand for the “grade level” of your content. Or the highest education level required to understand your content.
- A 90.0–100.0 score is easily understood by the average 11-year-old student.
- A 60.0–70.0 score is easily understood by the average 13- to 15-year-old student.
- A 0.0–30.0 score is best understood by university graduates.
To put it in perspective, your favorite publications write at these levels:
- Reader’s Digest: 65
- Time Magazine: 52
- Harvard Law Review: low 30s
What does this mean for content marketing?
Two things, mainly:
- The Flesch-Kincaid test will help you make your content either easier to read or more sophisticated to read.
- The test will also help you fine tune content for your audience.
The Flesch-Kincaid test has four basic principles that you can use to make your content easier or more sophisticated to read.
- Short sentences are easy to read. Short sentences score higher than long ones. Shorter syllabic words score higher.
- “Complex” words are words with more syllables in them. They’re not necessarily words that require better vocabulary and higher education.
- Longer sentences, like this one, make your content much more complex compared to shorter sentences.
Content creators should keep these principles in mind when they are creating content for a brand. Which brings us to the next point: the Flesch-Kincaid test will help you fine tune content. Essentially, applying these principles of the test can help make your content stronger for your brand’s audience.
You should know more than a thing or two about your audience if your brand has created distinctive buyer and audience personas. Part of knowing your audience means knowing what they read and how well they can read. The New Yorker will have a different Flesch-Kincaid score than Entertainment Weekly because they have very different audiences (though surely, with some overlap). Brand publishers also should have different aspirations for Flesch-Kincaid scores. A score somewhere in the 60s is a good place for any universal audience.
There’s more to readability than test scores
Readability formulas are excellent when you need your writing to be understood by a universal audience, but they are not the be-all and end-all for having content that is “readable.” Of course, content with fewer complex words and sentences is easier to read, but readable content must transcend syntax and vocabulary. For something to be “readable” and engaging, it must rely on design and formatting for skimmers and the content creator’s engaging voice that expresses the ideas and knowledge behind the content.
Readability tests can also be across the board. Just because your audience prefers content in the 60s to 70s doesn’t mean the content should be like that all of the time. For example, Quietly’s blog content rates different scores depending on the author and the content. Some of our more technical articles like, “The dreaded 100 percent bounce rate and what it’s really saying about your content” have a low score, meaning they’re more difficult to read.
Others like, “Why 25 is the magical number for headline success” score much higher, meaning they’re easier to read. But both appeal to our readers (and audience personas). To dilute one or complicate the other for the sake of “readability” consistency is silly since each article serves a different purpose.
Readability tools are useful in moderation
There are tons of resources and tools you can use to measure the readability of your content that goes beyond the Flesch-Kincaid test. Here’s a short list of our favourite ones.
Readability Test Tools
By Emily E. Steck
By Emily E. Steck
Hemingway App highlights long, complex sentences and common errors. It nitpicks your content to determine which sentences are hard to read, very hard to read, where you are using too many adverbs or passive voice and more. It also uses the Automated Readability Index to score your content by U.S. Grade level.
By Emily E. Steck
This online readability test and scorer allows you to input content via text, URL and files. It measures Flesch-Kincaid Reading Ease, Flesch-Kincaid Grade Level, Gunning-Fog Score, Liau Index, SMOG Index and Average U.S. Grade Level. It also breaks down keyword density and text statistics, such as character, syllable and word count.
By Emily E. Steck
By grading the website content using Flesch-Kincaid reading ease and grade level tests, this tool checks your writing clarity. It also highlights the use of passive voice and long sentences.
By Emily E. Steck
By inputting a block of text, Using English measures your content by the Gunning Fog Index, Coleman-Liau Index, Flesch-Kincaid Grade Level, Flesch-Kincaid Reading Ease, Automated Readability Index, SMOG Index and the Lix formula. To really make the most of this and the site's other tools, register for a free membership and the site will store a history of your tests.
Remember—readability tests do not evaluate the quality of content; they assesses the complexity of the content. Knowing and using these tests help brands and content creators create clearer, readable content for their audience personas.
Image: Melanie Deziel/Unsplash