Writing Advice – how “readable” is your writing?

How “readable” is your writing?

I’m a member of a writers’ group, and I realized at our meeting last week that “readability,” or the ability to assess it, is a more obscure concept than I thought. Most people don’t know how to use it.

After Microsoft Office Word finishes checking the spelling and grammar of a document, you can choose to display information about the material’s readability, i.e., how easy is it to get through your material. I believe the same stats are available through other programs like WordPerfect. But I can’t help you with how to do this in other programs.

Here’s how to enable the readability analysis in Word:

Click the Microsoft Office Button, then click Word Options.

Click Proofing.

Make sure Check grammar with spelling is selected.

Under When correcting grammar in Word, select the Show readability statistics check box.

Flesch Reading Ease

This readability test rates text on a 100-point scale. The higher the score, the easier it is to understand the document. According to Word, for most standard files, you want the score to be between 60 and 70.

You will see several numbers revealed, including Words per sentence, Characters per word, Passive voice, and Flesch Reading Ease/Readability.

However, despite the recommendation (made by Microsoft) to try for a readability score between 60 and 70, here’s some interesting information: Studies of best-sellers reveal that their reading ease is 80 and higher. It makes sense. Who wants to get bogged down trying to figure out a 30-word sentence when you’re in the middle of an exciting story? Here are more numbers from best-sellers: The average words per sentence maximum is 15; the average characters per word maximum is 4.5; the maximum passive voice is 5%.

If you’re like me, I spend far more time dwelling on the right portion of my brain, and I tend to balk at such analysis. Give it a try. You might be surprised, perhaps shocked. I don’t spend all my time checking the numbers. But when I’m finished a chapter or rough draft of a book, I’ll look at the readability stats. They’re always revealing and usually confirm what I already sense.

For example, in a novel I’ve recently completed, I was having trouble with three or four chapters. They just didn’t “read right.” Something was off, and I wasn’t sure what. After a readability check, I discovered that one chapter I loved (the information in it), but felt “yuck” about it for some unidentified reason, produced these numbers (I share them with immense embarrassment): Average number of words per sentence, 13.6 (not bad, but the following numbers are awful); Passive voice, 6% (the shame of it); Flesch Readability, 65.2 (Yikes!).

Chapters that I feel really rock produce numbers like these: Average number of words per sentence, 7.9; Passive voice, 0%; Flesch Readability Ease, 89%.

If you use this tool, be aware that the languages you use in a document can affect how your Microsoft Office program checks and presents readability scores.

If you set up Word to check the spelling and grammar of text in other languages, and a document contains text in multiple languages, Word displays readability statistics for text in the last language checked. For example, if a document contains three paragraphs — the first in English, the second in French, and the third in English — Word displays readability statistics for the English text only. I checked a chapter I wrote last night and the numbers were whacked. Then I realized I ended the chapter of my English story with a Spanish word. Beware of that quirk.

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About Mark Aidan Bergin

Writer, editor, photographic artist specializing in dance, theater, concert, fashion and street photography....sometimes musician. Explorer of arts, culture and world, and all things Celtic and Gotham. On a good day, or perhaps a bad day, simply a mad (FOOBAR, not angry) scientist.
This entry was posted in Books, The arts, Writing and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to Writing Advice – how “readable” is your writing?

  1. Interesting. But I distrust the ability of computers to truly evaluate literary work.

  2. Janet says:

    Interesting article. Readability is very important. I’m a little nervous to use that feature you mention as I’m trying to write more experimental fiction but I find that reading it out loud is a big help. Do I stumble or pause too much or does the text flow as a whole? If it doesn’t “sound” good I rework it.

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