Is Your Writing Readable?

If you’ve ever struggled to understand the directions in a computer manual, you know that not all writing is readable. But have you ever wondered about your own writing? Perhaps your readers can’t understand what you’ve written. To make sure that your essays, your term papers, and your personal letters are understood by those who read them, you should know a little bit about readability statistics.

Readability statistics have been developed over the years to measure the reading level of a particular piece of writing. For example, a sixth-grade history book should be much easier to read than a college-level history book. So if you are writing a history book, you need to make sure that the level of your writing doesn’t exceed the educational level of your intended readers. Basically, the readability level measures the education required to read the text easily. If your essay, for example, measures a “10” on the readability scale, that means anyone who has completed tenth grade should be able to understand the essay.

As an example, the readability for this essay should not exceed 12 because most of the readers for this particular essay are first-year college students, and grade 12 is the last year of school completed by most first-year college students. In fact, some writing professionals suggest that as a writer, you should never exceed 12 because at levels 13 and higher, your writing becomes less clear and more difficult to understand. Before you can lower your readability level, however, you need to know how the level is measured.

Various indexes measure readability, but the most basic one calculates the number of words per sentence and the number of long words used. (A long word, generally, is any word of three syllables or more.) So, if you use short sentences and short words, your readability level will be low, but if you use long words and long sentences, your readability level will be much higher. Many college students are tempted to use long words and long, complicated sentences to impress their teachers. You should try to resist that temptation.

Short Words Versus Long Words. According to Edward T. Thompson, the former editor of The Reader’s Digest, words can be classified as first-degree, second-degree, and third-degree. He describes first-degree words as words that “immediately bring an image to your mind.” He uses the word “book,” for example, as a first-degree word that is easily understood and visualized. Second- and third-degree words, however, are a bit more complicated and “must be ‘translated’ through the first-degree word before you see the image.” Second- and third-degree words related to the word “book” are words such as “volume” and “publication.” These second- and third-degree words are usually longer and more specific, but if your readers are unfamiliar with those words, your readers may not fully understand what you’ve written.

Does that mean you should never pull out your thesaurus and try a new word? No, not at all. But make sure you use the precise word that says what you want it to say and will be understood by your readers. Don’t choose a big word simply to show off your vocabulary and impress your readers.

Short Sentences Versus Long Sentences. When I sit in The Writing and Research Center and review an essay with a student, the student will sometimes ask, “Is that sentence too long?” Generally, my answer is “Yes,” but not because there’s a magic number of words for the ideal sentence. Instead, if you as a writer feel the sentence might be too long, your reader may also struggle with the sentence’s length.

A while back, many English teachers were using sentence-combining exercises to encourage their students to write longer sentences. This is a good strategy if students are writing too many short sentences, one right after another. Unfortunately, some students get carried away with this sentence-combining strategy, and they cram too many clauses into their sentences. When this occurs, readers often have to stop and re-read the sentence to make sure they understand it. That’s not a good thing. You want to keep your readers moving forward.

Readability. To check the readability level of your writing, take the following steps. First, after you’ve written an essay using Microsoft Word, click on “File” at the top left of your computer screen. Then, click on “Options” near the bottom of that drop-down menu. Next, click on the “Proofing” tab on the screen that appears. At the bottom of that screen, you should see a box that reads “Show Readability Statistics.” Click on that box, and a checkmark should appear indicating that you want to see your readability statistics. Finally, click on “OK” to return to your document. Once you’ve returned to your document, you can click on the “Review” tab at the top of the screen. Next, click on “Spelling and Grammar” on the drop-down menu. At that point, the computer will check the spelling and grammar for the entire document, and the “Readability Statistics” will appear at the end. The “Flesch-Kinciad Grade Level” at the bottom of that box will provide you with the readability level for that document.

The reading level for this essay, by the way, is 9.5, so it should be easily understood by anyone who has completed the first half of tenth grade. If after reviewing your essay, you discover that the reading level for your work is 12 or higher, you may want to consider revisions.



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Jim LaBate

Jim LaBate

Jim LaBate works as a writing specialist in The Writing Center at Hudson Valley Community College (HVCC) in Troy, New York.