Hacking the Flesch! (Reading Ease Test)The most common measures of reading simplicity are the Flesch-Kincaid Grade Level Test, followed by the Flesch Reading Ease Test. Too bad few know how they work.Let's fix that.
Flesch originally proposed the Reading Ease Test back in 1948. In 1976, the US Navy commissioned the Grade Level Test. John P. Kincaid created that test based on Flesch’s original work.
That’s where the name, Flesch-Kincaid comes from.
Ok, the history lesson is over. You probably heard of these tests already. Here’s how they work. Don’t worry, there won’t be an exam. You don’t need to break your head calculating them out.
Knowing the rules is step one in hacking them.
Going forward, it will be even more important. Many platforms (beBee, Medium, many Wordpress sites) show an estimated reading time next to post titles. For now, these estimates are simplistic. They just take the word count and divide it by 275.
If you’re wondering, that’s the claimed average reading speed of an adult male. No, I don’t know if an adult female reads faster or slower. No, I don’t know how accurate that average is. To be honest, I find it horribly low.
But, that’s what they use. Take it up with them.
Estimated reading times are still new. So are reading ease tests. Assuming you can call anything 40 years old, "new." The "new" part is that web apps and word-processing software do all the heavy lifting.
Eventually, sites will factor in reading ease. They will have to. Reading 750 words at Grade 13 Reading level is much slower than reading the same number of words at Grade 3 Reading Level.
That’s the whole point of simple writing.
For now, it will just be reader preference. They usually prefer simpler text.
The Flesch Reading Ease Test
This test assigns a score like on an exam, zero to 100. The closer you get to 100, the easier it is to read. The exam analogy doesn’t hold up all the way.
In an exam, you want to get 100. Not here. That would be too simple. That would be the "See Jane. See Jane run," sort of simple.
Most people say that any score between 60 and 70 is good. No, it isn’t. You can often get away with it, but you aren’t doing your readers any favors.
I aim for 70 to 86. Notice I said “aim.” It isn’t easy to write simple text. Still, you owe it to yourself and your reader to try.
There are many tools, including Microsoft Word, that calculate your score for you. It’s a good idea to understand what they do.
Here’s how they calculate the Flesch Reading Ease Test:
1. Divide the total number of words by the total number of sentences. This gives you the average sentence length (ASL.)
2. Divide the total number of syllables by the total number of words. This gives you the average syllables per word (ASW.)
3. Plug those values into this formula. 206.835 – (1.015 X ASL) – (84.6 X ASW)Flesch Reading Ease Test
Again, you don’t need to calculate the score yourself. Just look at the math. You want to see where and how the test cuts points.
Let’s call it hacking the Flesch!
You want a high score. Great, you start with 206.835. You can lose 126 points and still be fine.
The first part of the formula says to deduct the average sentence length. The shorter your average sentence, the less the formula deducts.
Fine, we’ll stick with short sentences.
Sentence length gets multiplied by 1.015, so it’s pretty much deducted as is. That means there’s no huge downside to using the occasional long sentence. That won’t kick the average up very much.
Now let’s look at average syllables. We have to multiply the average syllables per word figure by 84.6 before we deduct it from our score!
We have 126 points to play with. But, we lose 86.6 if we use just one syllable too much on average.
So, it does not “Behove us to minimize our syllable usage,” instead, “We need to use small words.”
The Flesch-Kincaid Grade Level Test
The Flesch-Kincaid Grade Level test maps the Flesch Reading Ease Test to US school grade levels. A score of six means a student in the sixth grade can understand it.
Many people say that anything under Grade 11 is good enough. Well, maybe it is.
Do you just want to be good enough?
I didn’t think so.
I aim for Grade 3 Reading Level. I say, “aim” because it isn’t always possible to do. It’s actually very tough to do. I figure if I can't explain it to a 10-year-old, I don't know the subject well enough to write about it.
Sometimes, I write about complicated stuff that I just can’t simplify enough. Grade 3 Level becomes impossible. Still, nothing ever goes public above Grade 6 Reading Level.
The reader trumps this. Know your audience. Write for them. Even so, err on the side of simplicity.
It isn’t a question of dumbing down. It certainly isn’t being too lazy to write at Grade 11 or above. My natural style is at Grade 13 Reading. I work hard to get it down... way down!
Kincaid based his test on Flesch’s earlier work. It too uses the ASL and ASW figures described above.
To get the Grade Level, use this formula: (0.39 X ASL) + (11.8 X ASW) – 15.59.
Flesch-Kincaid Grade Level Test
Hacking the Grade Level Test
Kincaid assigned more weight to the average sentence length, but not much. We need to be a little more careful with sentence length. We don’t need to bust our chops either.
I could have written, “We need to be a little more careful with sentence length, but we don’t need to bust our chops either.” Note that I didn’t. Now you know why.
It’s best to keep one thought per sentence. Otherwise, your average sentence length will skyrocket. Your Reading Grade Level will follow.
At first, it looks like Kincaid cut us some slack on syllables. He only multiplies by 11.8 not 84.6!
Uh, no. We don’t have 206 points to start, you only get 15.59! This seems harsher.
By now, you’re saying, “Paul, there is no freaking way I’m doing all that math! I have an actual life.”
No problem. You don’t need to. Many web forms will do the heavy lifting for you (ex: hemingwayapp.com). Just paste your text in them.
Several Wordpress plug-ins calculate the reading score for you. Even Microsoft Word will give you your reading ease score.
A caveat regarding the Flesch-Kincaid Grade Level Test:
Microsoft Word has both tests built-in (sort-of). The Word version of the Grade Level Test will not give a grade higher than Grade 12.
This may have changed in newer versions. ( I use 2010) To test, just paste in anything by Faulkner. To me, Faulkner is like Texas-style chile. His writing is delicious, but hard to digest.
If you write at Grade 18, Word scores you as Grade 12.
That’s not a major deal. Grade 12 is bad enough to edit down. Do you really need to know your piece is worse than you thought?
Yes, you do.
This is the issue I see. If you write at Grade 18, Word reports Grade 12. You make edits. You simplify it down to Grade 12 and re-score. Word reports Grade 12 again.
You cancel the edits and try others.
You’re stuck in an endless loop.
You’ve been warned.
Having your score is one thing. Knowing what you need to fix is something else.
Unmuddying the waters
Adjectives are words that describe or modify a noun.
More often than not, you don’t need them. For a specific case that may not be true. You’ll just have to gauge that for yourself. It’s best to try another word. If you can’t, or just don’t want to, that’s okay. Adjectives are not the biggest issue (see?).
Adverbs are something else altogether. They are mostly useless. (See? “They are useless,” works just as well.)
Adverbs describe or modify a verb, adjective, or other adverb. A good rule of thumb is to cut them out. At least, limit your use of them. This also applies to "very." I can't think of a more useless word.
Passive voice is a convoluted construct. It hinders communication. It is annoying to read.
It’s too damned easy to write.
Sometimes, passive voice is unavoidable. Usually, you can and should avoid it.
You can recognize passive voice because there are two verbs used. One of them is either “to have” or “to be.” Also, the sentence structure is flipped over so that the object and subject become confused.
“Paul was met at the airport by his wife,” is in the passive voice. It sucks.
“Paul’s wife met him at the airport,” is in the active voice. It’s much better, clearer, crisper, and cleaner.
Passive voice seems to be the preferred voice of B2B bloggers and marketers.
People, you gotta stop that stuff!
Write with Hemingway
Okay, now we know about the Flesch or Flesch-Kincaid test. We know we need to simplify. We need shorter words. We need to simplify our language. We know the taboos.
Now we just need to figure out exactly where those things are.
There’s a free web app at HemingwayApp.com . It helps you do just that. It also calculates your Flesch-Kincaid Grade Level.
Paste text into the free web-app and it will show you what you need to fix. It’s as simple as that. It will even color code your text.
Don’t utilize hemingwayapp.com, use it.
By the way, “utilize” is the most misused word in the English language. Or, maybe it’s “awesome.”
Let’s just say they run neck-and-neck.
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