Readability score - reading online

Step by step guide to boosting your content’s readability

We were struggling with the engagement of our copy. Turns out it was too academic and didn’t resonate with our audience. By making our content more readable, we immediately saw the benefit.

Readability and content marketing go hand in hand. Focussing our content at the correct reading level for our audience, saw our business grow YOY by over 500%. You can benefit from readability too.

In this blog, I’m going to

  1. Explain what readability means for you as a content marketer
  2. Give examples of when readability principles are missing from content
  3. Share my step by step guide on how you can adopt and then benefit from readability

Write for the expert, but write so the non expert can understand

What is readability and why does it matter?

At its purest, readability is about keeping things simple. It’s about explaining things in as straightforward terms as possible.

Content marketing is used to deliver a wealth of ideas and information. But, it’s not always presented in the best format.

Your content can be affected by many things:

  • The language you use
  • The length of words and sentences
  • Your use of grammar
  • The structure of your content

When working well, content marketing is a fantastic tool that helps grow a bond of trust between you and your customers. When it goes wrong, it can do a lot of damage.

What happens when content isn’t readable?

Poor readability is a signal that you’re not looking after your audience/customers correctly. When that’s the case, some alarming things can happen:

  1. You spend a lot of time, money and resources producing material that’s not fit for purpose
  2. Your audience doesn’t engage with your content
  3. Trust in your content, and ultimately your business/organization, diminishes
  4. Customers take their business elsewhere
  5. You lose revenue

The Dutch government used readability tools to score their content. The results showed they were writing content at a reading level (C1 on the CEFR scale) that was too high for the majority of readers in the Netherlands (B1).

This caused most readers to not fully understand the information being given to them. Not only was that a waste of taxpayers money, but it could also have put people’s health or wellbeing at risk. Especially If they were unable to correctly understand content related to medical issues or social security.

Another issue that can affect people’s health is online medical advice. As the average American reads at an eighth-grade level, medical material should be written at a fourth to sixth-grade level.

However, one report – a comparative analysis of the quality of patient education materials from medical specialties – showed that content from all of the 16 tested medical specialties was too complex for the average reader.

This led to possible issues in diverse areas, such as plastic surgery, family medicine and neurology.

When my toddler fell down the stairs, my wife and I went into full-on protective parent mode. First, we checked on him and gave him a cuddle. Thankfully, it wasn’t a bad fall, but it did scare the crap out of us.

The next thing we did was head to Google for advice on what to do next. We needed to know what danger signs to look for and if we should take him to hospital or not.

I’d hate to have been reading advice that was too difficult to understand quickly. Especially when panic, stress and a crying toddler is added to the mix.

Wow! That’s a lot of doom and gloom for one blog… But, the good news is these mistakes can be avoided by adopting readability measures.

Common readability issues

How to adopt readability, a step by step guide

Through our readability tool, ReadablePro, we’ve collected a wealth of data from our subscribers and the issues they have with readability, including:

  • Pitching their content at the wrong reading level
  • Overuse of long sentences
  • Complicated wording with too many syllables
  • Reliance on industry buzzwords and jargon

All of which are issues on their own, and can be a nightmare when all used together.

Now, I’m going to take you through the steps that we recommend to our ReadablePro subscribers. Each step helps boost the readability of their content.

1 | Have a customer focus

This is content marketing 101, but it’s the most important aspect of content creation. We always recommend starting with who your audience is and then creating content that will:

  1. Genuinely be useful to the reader
  2. Is relatable
  3. Answers a question, or solves a problem
  4. Is able to inform, entertain, or educate. Preferably, it does all three

The relatable point is an essential one. Too many websites and pieces of content are very ‘me, me, me’, and only talk about themselves. Avoid doing that, at all costs.

Turn the focus on how you do, or have done, something to how your reader can adopt the same practice.

This blog is an excellent example of that. Instead of just writing about how readability has helped me become a better writer, I’m also giving away tips that you can adopt yourself.

2 | Write at the correct reading level

If your content marketing is not at the right reading level, you risk not connecting with your audience. As a general rule of thumb, we aim for a reading level of grade eight for our online blog posts. This is akin to ages 14/15 in the US.

By doing so, we ensure a wide audience understand our content – 80% of Americans can’t read above a fifth grade level. This blog reads at a grade 8.5.

When writing each piece of content, we’re looking to achieve clarity of content. And we’re never dumbing down for the sake of it.

For our research, eBooks, and more academic content, we aim for a higher reading level. Along the lines of:

  • Grade 8 – Blog posts
  • Grade 10 – eBooks
  • Grade 12 – White papers and books

Flesch Reading Ease Score for marketers

3 | Get a baseline score

Once you have your first draft ready, it’s time to work out its readability score with ReadablePro.

Now you have a baseline, from which you can improve your content. You can edit as you go and improve your content while having a clear and accurate readability score.

ReadablePro - readability scoring

Image: draft version of this blog, run through ReadablePro

4 | Shorten your sentences

Readability scoring is done through a number of scoring algorithms, such as the Flesch Reading Ease, Flesch-Kincaid Grade Level, Gunning Fog Index, CEFR, and SMOG Index. Each has its unique take on what should be scored for readability.

The number one element that readability algorithms agree on is that long sentences are bad. Thankfully, it’s an easy fix and all you need to do is shorten your sentences.

Full stops and bullet points are your friend. Use them, and use them often. You’ll soon have content that:

  • People can easily read online
  • Doesn’t drain your reader by dragging on too long
  • Is structured in a user-friendly way

5 | Reduce the number of long words

Long words are another red flag for readability. Where possible, look for shorter alternatives. <- Here I could’ve said options instead of alternatives.

Now, this isn’t always possible, as there are words your organization needs to use as part of it’s day-to-day. For us as at readable.io, our word is readability. How’s that for irony?

There’s no getting around this and it’s a good reminder that you shouldn’t overly edit. You don’t need to try and make everything as readable as possible.

If you do that, you’ll end up sounding like a sci-fi robot from the ’50s. Unless your target audience LOVES B-movies, avoid.

6 | Scrub your copy of buzzwords, geekspeak, jargon and acronyms

As tempting as it may be, do not fill your content with buzzwords, geekspeak, jargon or acronyms. Doing so limits the content to those who are already in the know. If you have to use certain terms, explain them.

When working in my first job in London, I had the delight of editing blog posts by structural engineers. Those boys loved to fill their content with as much jargon and as many acronyms as they could. Making my editing job very dull and longwinded.

The structural engineers were writing from the worst possible angle, to try and look smarter than their peers. They didn’t care about readability and their audience.

7 | Don’t overuse adverbs

People frequently tend to liberally overuse adverbs, eventually causing sentences to be really cluttered.

If you take all of the adverbs out of that previous sentence, how much better does it sound?

‘People tend to overuse adverbs, causing sentences to be cluttered.‘

Like anything in life, moderation is key.

8 | Have you set the correct balance between formal and conversational?

My preferred style of writing edges towards conversational with a formal tone, but you have to match what your audience is expecting.

The two styles of writing can be split up easily:

Informal

Conversational

Simple.

When we talk, we need to breathe. Meaning long sentences aren’t a thing. When writing, aim for less than 30 words in a sentence, but less is preferred.

Complex.

Longer sentences are commonplace. Points and opinions are more likely to be fully discussed and concluded.

Empathy.

Writers will be able to understand the feelings of their readers. They will be able to show that they have gone through similar challenges and offer a solution.

Objective.

Very matter of fact, without relating to the people or emotions involved in the content.

Colloquial.

Similar to how we talk, informal writing involves aspects like figures of speech, slang, and local dialect.

Being Scottish, I use wee a lot.

Third person.

The writer doesn’t put themselves in the heart of the content. They use terms such as we instead of I.

They talk about the reader, but never place them in content with words such as you.

Contractions and abbreviations.

Again, it’s all about keeping things simple.

When talking about Netflix, you might write that you’re watching online TV. You also write you’re rather than you are.

With Instagram, you post your photos.

Full words.

No contractions, you are wins out every time. As does television and photographs.

Abbreviations are spelt out in full, at least at first.

By conversational, I’m aiming to make my writing feel like I’m talking directly with you. I want it to be close to how I’d talk if we were face to face, or if I was giving a presentation.

The benefits of doing so are that it makes the reading experience more personal. It also feels more natural to me write this way, even after years of writing for a B2B audience.

Just because you’re writing for business, it doesn’t mean you have to write with no personality. I always edit my drafts and make sure the flow of copy is natural and not forced.

This works for the majority of content that I write; however, it’s not always appropriate. Say I was working on readable.io’s privacy policy, a more formal tone of writing is needed.

Formal doesn’t mean we abandon readability. Clear language always wins out, no matter if your content is formal or conversational.

9 | The importance of feedback and proofreading

Common sense time, again. As many pairs of eyes as possible should read a document before it goes live.

As a writer, you can be too close to what you’re writing. A second, or third person, looking over your work can help give perspective and point out areas of improvement.

There have been some great additions added to this blog post since my first draft, suggested by those who’ve proofread it. My vanity as a writer won’t let me tell you what they are, just that they exist…

Conclusion

Readability and content marketing are about three simple principles:

  • Keeping your audience center of everything you do
  • Inform, educate or entertain your audience
  • Keep it simple

Keeping things simple isn’t always easy. But there are tools out there to help you, and practice makes perfect. The more you stick to readability principles, the more your audience will love your content.

I wish you all the best with your readability efforts. If you have any questions, drop me a message on Twitter – @stevelinney.

Original post: contentmarketinginstitute.com.

Steve Linney
[email protected]

I've been a marketer for the last twenty years, covering a wide number of areas. Including e-learning, the music industry, and corporate responsibility.