When I was a little girl and a budding writer-in-the-making, my sixth grade class had a rare opportunity to interview one of my favorite authors over the phone. I distinctly remember fidgeting with my notebook and wiping the sweat off of my palms right before I asked my question, “What advice would you give an aspiring writer?” He answered with one word—Read.
As a young student, I only half-understood what he was trying to teach me. Fast forward a few years, and I’ve taken his advice to heart.
As an adult, I’m constantly reading. Books, articles, blog posts, enewsletters, status updates, tweets, snaps, and everything in-between. I may not have realized it at the time, but when my childhood literal hero told me to read, he was really saying this:
“Read anything and everything you can. Pay attention to how others write, how they develop their characters, the tone and language they use, how they unfold stories, etc. Read often, so you can pinpoint what you do and don’t like, and then mimic that (or don’t) within your own writing.”
As a copywriter at ID, my obsession with reading to improve my writing has become an integral part of my ongoing professional development. When canvassing the ever-changing landscape of modern marketing, one thing never seems to change—the necessity for good content—more specifically, readable content.
Search engines demand readable content, and readers crave it.
In the past, having a handful of SEO-friendly articles on your website could boost your search rankings. As long as you added new content to your site a couple of times a year, search engines would crawl the content, index it, and rank your site accordingly. Alas, those simpler days are long gone.
It’s not enough to just have content on your website anymore. Search engines (SEs) have grown more sophisticated over the years. Yes, bots still visit your site, but so do real life humans. And it’s the humans who will or will not engage with your content based on how readable it is.
Today’s algorithms are a lot smarter too. They take into account how humans interact with the content on your site. If you don’t write interesting content, users bounce fast when they hit your web pages. SEs take note of this, and they will demote your pages as a result.
So how do you know if your content is readable or not?
You can actually use mathematical formulas to find out just how readable your content is. Two of the most commonly referenced readability formulas were developed by Rudolf Flesch, an author and thought leader on the subject of readability, and by J. Peter Kincaid, a psychologist and scientist who has years of applied research and university teaching on readability.
So step number one is to run your content through the old Flesch Reading Ease Test:
The higher the score, the more readable your content is. The lower the score, the harder it is to read.
You can also use the Flesch-Kincaid Grade Level Test, which assigns a grade level to your written content:
Plugging in the word, sentence, and syllable-count into this formula will spit out a number that is synonymous with a grade school level. For example, if the test results in a grade level number eight, that would mean the written content should be easy for an eighth grader to read and understand.
For the less mathematically inclined, these tests are based on the same premise…that short sentences and short words equate to better readability scores.
Here’s how modern marketers should apply the Flesch-Kincaid formulas to ensure that their content is readable every time:
- When defining your target personas, add in a list of publications the persona typically reads.
- Score those publications using the Flesch-Kincaid formulas.
- Write your content at the same score level as those publications.
If you’re short on time, you can use these websites to help grade your content’s readability:
And if you’re even shorter on time, here’s a little-known trick in Microsoft Word to turn on automatically while you’re writing:
- Open Word.
- Click on the File tab.
- Click on Options.
- Click on Proofing.
- Add a check mark to the Show readability statistics, and click OK.
- Write your content.
- Run Spell Check.
- See Results.
By the way, this blog post’s Flesch Reading Ease score is 62.7, and the Flesch-Kincaid Grade Level is 8.3.
What are your thoughts on readability tests? Do you use them?