Recently, writing consultant gave a workshop locally and got everyone in these parts ginned back up about readability. Which is fantastic, of course, because the purpose of written content is to be read. My quibble isn’t with the message – Readability is critical – but one of the tools suggested for analyzing your content’s readability: the Flesch-Kincaid Readability Test.

One way to check readability

The consultant suggested that writers check off their content using the built-in Flesch-Kincaid readaiblity app in MS Word (you also can get plenty of them on the web). The test scores your writing based average sentence length, average syllable per word and use of the passive voice. Not necessarily a bad idea, but taken at face value – which I’ve seen many busy writers and content creators do – it forces you into producing dumbed down, washed out text that sounds like anyone could have written it about almost any thing – without much rhythm. Bleh. Who wants to read that?

The problem with readability formulae

Relying only on Flesch-Kincaid or other readability indices, you can easily take all the zing, flair and differentiation out of your content. Yes, too much of a good thing – too many big descriptive words, too many long descriptive sentences – is ineffective. But so is too little.

Too many short sentences in a row is boring to read unless those sentences are extremely well-crafted so the words create the rhythm. Too much plain language lulls the reader into thinking there’s nothing special here. Put too many plain words in too many short sentences and you’ve got nothing anybody wants to read. And you’re pretty much screwed with Flesch-Kincaid and other calculators if you’ve got to include some technical terms – even more so if you need a longish sentence to explain them.

How to improve readability

It takes talent to bring some style and voice to this formula, plus a keen sense of the traits that make good writing (strong ideas and solid details, clear voice, effective word choice and sentence fluency). A better plan for improving readability is to consider your audience. (More on how to write for your audience). If you're writing to cancer researchers, it's a safe bet they can easily navigate complex concepts and terms explained in longer sentences. If you're writing to 18-year-olds, you're better served to use simpler language and a mix of sentence lengths to keep them engaged.

If you’re going to adhere strictly to an readability score, give yourself extra time to consider your audience very carefully and determine the right voice and vocabulary level for them. Then take a little more time to give those shorter sentences and plainer words a little more flair. With so much competition for eyeballs and engagement these days, you can’t afford not to.

(BTW, this post earned a score in the low 40s on more than one Flesch-Kincaid calculator, meaning it’s too hard for 9th graders. Really?)