Tag Archives: readability

Why should editors pay any attention to readability metrics?

By Howard Walwyn

Like other things that are not universally loved but keep coming back – general elections, Christmas, the X Factor – readability metrics don’t seem to be going away.

There are people out there who like general elections, Christmas and the X Factor. And there are people out there who like readability metrics. But many who don’t.

“I thought that [setting readability targets] … had long since fallen out of fashion. It’s not a reliable tool, and it’s not appropriate in many circumstances.” (SfEP Forum contributor, August 2018)

This view is by no means isolated and is very defensible. Far better to write like a human than to be constrained by over-simple metrics, which don’t capture nonsensical meaning and can be outright misleading about how ‘good’ – clear, simple or ‘readable’ – a piece of prose is.

Young shocked boy holding open book

Photo by Ben White on Unsplash

What are they?

A quick reminder of what the measures are, pretty much in two classes.

Flesch-type: Simple arithmetic measures of two elements: (i) the ratio of words to sentences and (ii) the ratio of syllables to words. In essence, shorter words and sentences translate to better readability scores.

Other: Widely used by Search Engine Optimisation (SEO) tools, a separate but related class of measures looks at frequency: how often something occurs and whether it is above or below a given threshold. For example if the number of sentences with a passive verb exceeds 10% the prose will be marked down on this metric. Similarly, the number of ‘long’ sentences as defined (20 words, since you ask) shouldn’t exceed 25%. And the number of sentences including a so-called ‘transition word’ should exceed 30%.

Why use them?

Why would any editor in their right mind pay attention to such simplistic notions?

Well, for two main reasons.

As a benchmark

In their own limited way – not sufficient, not even necessary, but still useful – these metrics support intuition surprisingly well. A postgraduate thesis will score around 30 on the Flesch Reading Ease measure. This is one version of the simple ratios mentioned above, scaled into an index which can be then attributed to different reading levels. 30 is hard to read. 60 is plain English. 100 is readable by an eight-year-old child.

I think of them as no more than benchmarks: background data in the back of my mind which helps me judge (1) the level of reader who find might this piece easily readable – which may be very different to who it is aimed at; and (2) how a piece compares before and after editing or compares to work by a similar but different author.

I emphasise that I fully understand the technical limitations. I wouldn’t judge a piece based solely on the metrics. But I do find the information they give me is valuable in its own terms as part of my assessment of the piece.

You can’t drive a car based solely on the speedo. You don’t even really need it that much if you’re an experienced driver. But it’s still a useful part of your armoury at the wheel.

Because clients do

This is perhaps the main reason in practice we, as editors, should be paying more attention even if we have to hold our noses while doing so.

Increasingly – perhaps reflecting the more general drive towards plain English standards in corporate and official life – non-publishing clients are using Flesch and other metrics explicitly as in-house writing targets. A couple of examples came up in a recent SfEP Forum thread on this topic.

“I do some work for a government department … their reports must have readability scores of between 40 and 60, varying according to their intended recipients.” (SfEP Forum contributor, August 2018)

I can vouch for this. One of my clients in the finance sector has set external and internal Flesch readability targets for its comms department and its policy gurus respectively. The arguments are as follows:

  1. On the external (comms) side, they want to communicate in plain English and a Flesch measure is an objective way of at least encouraging that.
  2. On the internal (policy) side they want to improve their management decision-making, and clearer internal writing – which they think is at least partially evidenced by a ‘good’ Flesch score – is part of that determination.

We can help

On this basis it is pragmatic and sensible for us, as editors, to develop some expertise in the tools; while not losing any scepticism we may have for them. We can add value for clients by helping them understand the metrics better, and work with them to help them appreciate the limitations. As Luke Finley said on the SfEP Forum thread I mentioned:

“There’s some evidence applying readability formulas too rigidly can make a text harder to read. To me this is an argument for putting them in the hands of language experts like editors if they’re to be used in a nuanced way.” (August 2018)

In short, keep an open mind. It could help you in your business if you have this expertise. I wouldn’t necessarily suggest volunteering them if the client doesn’t use them. But even that may be apt and valuable for certain types of non-publishing client. And you may help mitigate some of the misapplications that come with limited understanding.

You can even have fun with them. I expose my students’ work to the measures and they are often thrilled or horrified to see how academic (read tortuous) their business writing has become. And often pleased to be set on a path which involves a clear metric (even if a limited one).

Want to know more?

For more information I have published two (yes, two!) blogs on this topic, which I suppose reveals my interest: Flesh of my Flesch and
The Pix Simplicity Measure.

And for a bit of further informative fun, here are the readability metrics for this blog:

  • Flesch Reading Ease 60 (plain English).
  • 24% of sentences are long; 12% are passive; within or close to the guidelines.
  • 34% of sentences with transition words: above the guideline.

In short, I am happy to release this post to the editor in the knowledge that it should be broadly ‘readable’, but you can be the human judge of that!

Howard WalwynHoward Walwyn is a writer, editor, trainer and SfEP Professional Member. After a career in the City, he now helps clients write clear business English and bridge the worlds of language and finance. He is a visiting lecturer in Writing for Business at City, University of London and has degrees in English Language & Literature and Economics. Follow him on LinkedIn or Twitter.

Posted by Abi Saffrey, SfEP blog coordinator.

The views expressed here do not necessarily reflect those of the SfEP.

25 tips for writing effectively for older readers

Vera

Sarah Carr’s friend, Vera, celebrating her 100th birthday – when she was born in 1911, the UK had 102 centenarians; by 2013, it had 13,780.

Misleading information, unclear instructions, technical jargon and illegible print: these are all barriers that can stop older people accessing products and services. Apart from the obvious ethical problem – it is unacceptable for a civilised society to withhold important goods from citizens – it makes good business sense to value older consumers. The 65-plus age group represents 20% of the UK consumer population (those aged 16 and above) and is expected to rise to 25% by 20301.

As experts in written communication, members of the Society for Editors and Proofreaders (SfEP) are well equipped to help ensure that texts meet the needs of target readers. The SfEP is launching a three-tier commercial package for organisations targeting older consumers. Comprising a communications audit, editorial consultancy and in-house training, the project kicks off with the publication of a booklet on communicating with older readers. Drawing on research and anecdotal evidence gathered with the help of SfEP members and editors from other English-speaking countries, Sarah Carr presents in this blog a list of 25 top tips. For more ideas, and advice on how to implement these in your work, watch out for the booklet!

Attitude

  1. Do what you can to challenge attitudes towards ageing and older people.

Features of older people

  1. Understand the needs of older readers, remembering that they have widely varying abilities, and encompass two or even three generations.

Inclusive writing

  1. Take an inclusive approach to writing, suitable for all members of the public (sometimes known as ‘plain language’).

Purpose, content and structure

  1. Before you start writing, think about why you are doing so, what you want the text to achieve, and the best medium for this purpose.
  2. Plan your messages and ideas, ensuring they are clear and honest.
  3. Organise the content logically, using an appropriate structure and good navigational aids, and avoiding very long paragraphs.

Style and grammar: words and phrases

  1. Consider using graphics to help present your ideas.
  2. Omit redundant words, and use short, familiar words and phrases.
  3. Use jargon and abbreviations only when necessary, and explain each term when you first mention it.
  4. Ensure that you refer to people equally; failing to do so may not only offend readers (and so lose their attention) but also helps prolong inequality.

Style and grammar: sentences

  1. Ensure that you use good grammar, spelling and punctuation.
  2. Aim for an average sentence length of 15 to 20 words, with some longer and shorter for variety and effect.
  3. Use strong verbs (rather than nominalisations/deverbal nouns, e.g. ‘decide’, not ‘make a decision’).
  4. Favour active verbs (‘the team decided’, not ‘it was decided by the team’), writing in the first and second person (‘I’/‘we’ and ‘you’) and phrasing points positively.

Layout and design

  1. Use a simple, clear font, in sentence case, at a size of 12 to 14 point, avoiding italics and underlining.
  2. Align text to the left, with lines of a reasonable length, and avoid splitting words between lines.
  3. Use white space effectively, for example to help show the logical structure of your text.
  4. For text on paper, use good-quality paper with a matt finish, ensuring a good level of contrast between background and ink colours.
  5. Keep images clear and simple, ensuring they do not stereotype older people.

Writing for the web

  1. Ensure it is easy to understand the structure of your website, and to navigate around the site.
  2. Think about web-specific aspects of layout and design, and the readers’ familiarity with using computers and the internet.
  3. Include text alternatives, e.g. audio and video.

Checking the suitability of your text

  1. Aim for a reading-age level of 12 to 14 years, using a readability formula (available in Word).
  2. Consider testing your text on a real audience, if time and money allow, or otherwise using plain-English editors to provide an expert opinion.

Acquiring or commissioning the skills

  1. For a professional and cost-effective service, commission support from SfEP members. And don’t forget our specialist training courses and publications!

1 Analysis by the Personal Finance Research Centre at Bristol University quoted in Age UK (2010) Golden Economy: The Consumer Marketplace in an Ageing Society (research by ILC-UK).

Sarah CarrSarah Carr works as a writer, editor and proofreader, specialising in plain English and business communication. She feels strongly that our society should value old age and older people more, and is saddened by its mysterious obsession with youth. As a practical demonstration of her principles, she refuses to dye her (increasingly) grey hair!

Proofread by SfEP ordinary member Louise Lubke Cuss.

The views expressed here do not necessarily reflect those of the SfEP.