Clever vs clear: Can your readers follow you?

Blog | 03 Mar, 2017

Readable content is key to conversions - but what defines it?

What is readability?

When we look at how readable a piece of text is, what we want to know is how easy it is to make sense of what is being said. It is as much about design as it is about the words we use. If you add (or take away) space between lines, around text, or between text and images, that can have a big impact on how easy it is to read a piece of writing.

Learn more about the impact of design on readability here.

When it comes to the readability of the words themselves, we need to look at the quality of what’s being read. More than that, it needs to be engaging.

How readability relates to your readers

Readability is important because it affects your readers. If they can’t easily make sense of your content, they are less likely to engage with it.

Reading scores measure one of two things. 

Either they check how complex a piece of writing is, with lower scores being harder to read; or they give grade levels. In this case, a higher level means the reader needs to have had more education to be able to process the piece. 

Writers may often feel quite pleased with a higher grade-level score for our writing. We assume this means our work shows both our skill and learning. But the side effect is not worth the acclaim. If our readers don't understand the content easily, our writing is wasted.

The grade scores correlate to school grades in the USA and UK. So a score of 6 means readers need to have a reading level at least as high as someone would have at the end of primary school. A score of 10–12 is about the reading level of an average high school graduate (grade 12).

When you factor in the average reading age online (which is 13 years old, no matter one’s actual age or education), it becomes clear how crucial it is to know the reading score for your content. 

Why is this important?

The way we try to communicate can often get in the way of what we're trying to communicate. This problem becomes more apparent as content marketing grows worldwide. More content is written and shared today than ever before. Volume is key, which means speed is the focus, rather than quality. While some writers default to writing poor copy under pressure, a lot of writers become even more formal in their writing style. Neither extreme is good. If the text is too hard to read, your readers may not engage with the content—or even understand it. And if it is too simple, you run the risk of making your audience feel patronised - or, worse still, bored.

How readability affects content marketing

“Content that people love and content that people can read is almost the same thing.” - Neil Patel

Obviously, Neil Patel’s pithy comment is not always true. What is true, though, is that easy-to-read content helps people get to your site. And it helps them stay there, as this case study clearly shows. This is at last in part because Google cares about readability. (See here and here and here. And if you want to see how far Google still has to go in this area, read here—although this article is almost three years old and a lot has changed since then.) Again, thinking about the average reading age online, Google needs to filter search results based on readability. And they do.

Blog content

A good deal of content marketing is creating and sharing fresh content. The most widely used platform for doing so is a blog on a company’s website. In fact, a blog really isn’t a blog anymore. At least, not in the earliest sense of the word. Blogs have become online news delivery engines owned by the website owner. A blog turns a website into a private news service—one with a very niche focus.

In the piece, ‘11 Reasons Why I Won’t Be Returning to Your Blog,’ Writers Write explains, 

“If your sentences go on forever, if you use outdated words, and if you always write in the passive voice, I will leave and never come back. You need to write simply to convey complex ideas. Avoid overused and unnecessary modifiers and qualifiers. I think there is a place for adjectives and adverbs on blogs, but they must add to the piece and not distract me. 

Tip: Check your readability statistics before you post. If they are too low and your passive content is too high, rewrite your blog so that people will enjoy reading it.”

Professional standards

Interestingly enough, the US National Library of Medicine guidance on writing health material for the public suggests writing for a level of grade 7 or 8. Bearing in mind that their material would address graduates and post-graduates, this stance makes it clear just how important it is to make content as easy to understand as possible.

•    Affects user engagement
•    Affects SEO
•    Is measured by Google
•    Is important to web developers and technical SEO chaps when they implement the SEO and content for a site

What is a readability score?

Readability scores were first measured by Edward Thorndike. In 1921, he outlined a system for measuring the readability of what he considered the primary words in the English vocabulary. He based his calculations on how common the words were. 

Since then, researchers such as Flesch and Kincaid have continued to expanded the field. Each new foray into the field brings with it new tools, and new sums, for working out how easy it is to read what is written.

These days, we have tech available to do the hard math for us—often for free! A readability score is a computer calculation that gives us an idea of the level of schooling needed to make sense of a piece of content. 

The score itself shows either:
•    the actual grade level of the writing;
•    the number of years of education a person would need to read it easily;
•    the complexity of the piece; or 
•    a combination of these metrics.
The best tools display results from a range of tools. This gives a broad view of the complexity or ease of a piece of text.

How do readability scores work?

The aim of these tools is to give a writer an idea of how hard it will be for different people to read and understand what has been written. The harder it is, the less chance there is that the reader will engage with it.

According to, “Flesch-Kincaid Reading Ease scores are (usually) between 0 and 100, with a score of 70 to 80, equivalent to 7th grade (age 12), being fairly easy to read. Flesch-Kincaid and Gunning-Fog Grade Levels provide scores directly in grades, where a score of 7–8 is ideal.”

Links to tools

The internet is a proliferation of incredibly useful—and mostly free—stuff. This is particularly true when it comes to readability tools. It would seem that there are a lot of very generous people out there who want to make the internet a nicer place. A quick search revealed these (and many other) free tools, all of which are easy to use:
•    JellyMetrics Readability Grader
• Readability Checker
•    WebPage FX’s Readability Tool (formerly EditCentral)
•    Juicy Studio Readablity Checker
•    Readability Formulas

Can your visitors read your words?

In short, readability is not about dumbing your content down. It’s about making your words as widely accessible as possible—to as many people as you can.

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