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Content Readability Tools

Fast and easy way to make content easier to read!

     
11:05 pm on Nov 14, 2003 (gmt 0)

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Like all web content writers, I’m always looking for a simple way to make my job easier.

Readability tools help me manage two of my biggest challenges, which are:
·Holding the reader’s attention. You got to keep them reading long enough to get your message across.
·Maintaining a consistent voice. You need a lot of content on your site, but you don’t really want your site to sound like different people wrote it.

Let’s take a quick look at how readability tools work.

One of the things I always do before publishing my content is to check the Readability Score. Readability scores are based on a U.S. elementary school grade level. For web content targeted at adult readers, I recommend shooting for somewhere between a 7th and 8th grade reading level.

The Flesch-Kincaid Grade Level score is the easiest to use, because it’s the one used in MS Word. When you finish running the MS Word spelling and grammar checker on your document, the Flesch-Kincaid Grade Level score is displayed.
Here’s how the Flesch-Kincaid Grade Level score is calculated:

(.39 x ASL) + (11.8 x ASW) – 15.59
where:

ASL = average sentence length (the number of words divided by the number of sentences)
ASW = average number of syllables per word (the number of syllables divided by the number of words)

So, it’s pretty easy to see that shorter sentences with shorter words will lower the Readability Score.

After you write the first draft of a new page, run the spelling and grammar checker and fix any obvious problems. Then, look at the Readability Score. This will give you a quick idea as to how deeply you need to edit on your next pass through the page. If the score is 13, then you’ll need to go back to the document with a meat axe. If the score is 9, then a laser scalpel will suffice.

When you’re editing for readability, you are shortening sentences and shortening words.

This can have two positive effects on your site:

·Longer Visits. You are making it easier for the reader to read your content. The easier the content is to read; the longer the visitor will spend reading it. (By the way, this article has a 6th grade readability score, and you’ve almost read it all. See what I mean?)

·Consistent Voice. If you are using a team of writers, require that their content be written to a specific grade level. Look at any Style Guide and you will see page after page of specific words to use and how to use them. However, from a practical perspective, it’s tough to get writers to use style guides. By moving to shorter words, you are actually limiting the number of words that the writers can use. You are knocking out countless big words like “utilize” and replacing them with little words like “use.” By requiring them to write to a specific score, you also help them write with a specific voice.

Effective use of readability scores will help you score a bulls-eye with your readers!

11:59 pm on Nov 14, 2003 (gmt 0)

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Nice post, Jerseygirl! Although MS Word is ubiquitous, can anyone suggest some online or free tools, or tools that offer different/better results?
12:45 am on Dec 9, 2003 (gmt 0)

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I guess it depends on your audience. If you have a general site, then aiming for the broadest possible audience, that is to say, all possible reading levels, is the best idea. For sites aimed at, say, college-educated professionals, the vocabulary could be, and should be, richer; the Wall Street Journal, for instance, uses a broader vocabulary than does USA Today.

There are some dangers with 'simpler' language. For instance, 'utilize' is not a complete synonym for 'use', i.e. they are not 100% interchangeable. The difference can be seen in this: you use a screwdriver to tighten a screw, but you would utilize a table knife for the same purpose.

Readability is, I think, better achieved by using the tools that dynamic writers use: active voice, muscular use of language, syntax and structure, and the over-all drive to 'tell a story' even if you are just describing how a widget works or giving the minutes of a meeting. In another thread, Ogilvy's book on writing for advertising (I am doing this from memory; sorry if name is wrong) was recommended, and that's good advice. After all, advertising is the most readable prose there is, because it needs to be.

4:50 pm on Dec 9, 2003 (gmt 0)

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Is there any data available out there as to who uses these types of tools? Or who targets to specific "grade-level" reading abilities? Do newspapers? Magazines? Other publications?

I've heard academics talk about these tools ... but I've never run into anyone using them in practice.

11:55 pm on Dec 9, 2003 (gmt 0)

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Purely anecdotal, but people who write manuals, informational brochures, etc. sometimes use them to be sure their documents aren't overly complex. I think there was some stuff published a few years ago about the readability of insurance policy descriptions, and how at least one enterprising firm had run everthing through readability software and kept rewriting until a normal person could understand it.

I can't imagine many newspaper or magazine writers would tolerate a system that required them to mechanically dumb down their product.

7:32 pm on Dec 12, 2003 (gmt 0)

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Hawkgirl, you asked if anyone uses these tools in real life. Here's an example.

Deloitte Consulting developed an in-house writing tool for its employees called Bullfighter [dc.com] that assesses readability and looks for jargon. The program embeds within Word and Powerpoint.

The tool became popular with Deloitte's consultants and even its clients. It is now available on the DC website as a free tool.

[note: I am not affiliated with Deloitte in any way.]

1:49 pm on Dec 13, 2003 (gmt 0)

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JavaScript based online tool.

It gave me a slightly lower result than Word did for the same Corpus but close enough to be DAMN useful IMHO :)

h t t p:// www . aellalei . com / resources / sample.html

2:01 pm on Dec 13, 2003 (gmt 0)

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Please accept my apologies Jersey Girl as forgot to do the most important thing I had to do, in reply to this thread.

The simple and important thing was to thank YOU, for taking the time and effort in posting this extremely important information. As a non copywriter and a simple techy it is information like this, from experts like yourself that make this forum the massive resource that it is.

I can see that this is so important I am in the process of putting together an online script that will automatically tell me the Flesch-Kincaid Grade Level score when you visit a web page. If all goes well then I'll glady share this with everyone here.

Thanks again

(BTW this post has a score of 8.8 so hopefully is OK :)

3:18 pm on Dec 13, 2003 (gmt 0)

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WOW.

This thread has definately kicked me into motion as I have now coded a simple Internet Explorer addition to show an analysis of web pages while you surf.

It seems to work pretty well though look to the expert copywriters here for feedback.

I will package this up with an install file next week so that it will be easier to install and use, but for now if you want to utilise this tool then please do the following.

Read up on the information at h t t p:// www . aarp. org/computers-howto/Articles/a2002-10-21-ct-linkbar.html which gives some basic information on using the Links Bar.

As explained at the above URL make sure your Links Bar is viewable in Internet Explorer. You can do this by opening Internet Explorer, going to View -> toolbars and ensuring that there is a tick beside Links and also that it is viewable.

Add a new Link by going to Favourites then adding a new favourite under the Links folder containing the following.

javascript:location.href='http:/'+'/www.strangelogic.com/readability/test.pl?'+location.href;

You may well get a warning that JavaScript doesn't have an associated program but simply ignore that.

You now have the functionality installed and can begin to use it by clicking the New Link Button once you are at any web page that you want analysed.

At the moment this is far from pretty though it is functional. The look and feel of the results page will change as I get some time to make it look better but in the meantime I hope it assists in you all getting some better copy out there and converting that copy into good old fashioned £ $ € [insert your currency of choice] :)

2:56 am on Dec 15, 2003 (gmt 0)

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dumb down their content

I don't think that writing to what I call a "minimum-optimum grade level" necessarily means dumbing down the content. It is more challenging to write those straightforward sentences, yes. But the convoluted sentence structures and run-on paragraphs that slip through without this kind of discipline are much less effective, and can even obfuscate the point the writer is making in a way that provides a comfort zone where the author can hide a lack of comprehension and clarity on their part. (See what I mean?)

For two years I wrote technical content about SANs (fiber optic Storage Area Networks). If there's anything that can get tehnically complex, it's that kind of bleeding edge information. But I could almost always hit a 9th grade reading level IF I really understood what I was trying to say. And that meant the company and their engineers needed to have clarity as well.

Whenever that clarity wasn't there, someone, some PERSON in the work flow chain, wasn't clear.

We found that the effort to write to a 9th grade level was well worth it -- the articles produced leads and sales at a far better pace than the more complex sentences and vocabulary did.

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