Paul "Pablo" Croubalian

5 years ago · 5 min. reading time · visibility 0 ·

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Hacking the Flesch! (Reading Ease Test)

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!

Yikes!

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

We already figured out we need to use smallish words in short-ish sentences. Simplicity doesn’t stop there.

Adjectives

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

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

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.comuse 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.

Happy writing!

Hacking the Flesch! (Reading Ease Test)


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Comments

Kevin Pashuk

5 years ago #21

#28
You... say... that... Paul \... like... it's... a... bad... thing...

Paul "Pablo" Croubalian

5 years ago #20

#12
Yes. Just... Don't... End... Up... Talking...Like... Captain... Kirk...

Paul "Pablo" Croubalian

5 years ago #19

#24
Well, I wouldn't say they suck, John. Many people (but definitely not all) shy away from big blocks of text and complex sentence structures. I prefer simple but not simplistic. It takes some getting used to. Eventually, you just use hemingwayapp as a final touch up.

Paul "Pablo" Croubalian

5 years ago #18

#22
Thanks for the compliment, Renee Rosenmann

Paul "Pablo" Croubalian

5 years ago #17

#20
I agree that email is not the best medium for it. I get nearly 1000 a day. If it wasn't for rules and folders, I wouldn't even notice clients' emails. Email is so passé.... And that's an Old Fart saying that.

Pascal Derrien

5 years ago #16

#18
that's actually the problem I dont get most of them or they end up in my junk box would be more efficient if message platform was used as channel I have already flagged it and made that suggestion that's one dashboard only

Phil Friedman

5 years ago #15

#18
Yea, and you can alway change your mind later ... although I haven't yet, and don't expect to.:-)

Paul "Pablo" Croubalian

5 years ago #14

#17
From a writer's Producer page, you can subscribe to his/her posts. Just click on their name in the Producer listing and select "subscribe to this blog"

Pascal Derrien

5 years ago #13

As an aside I have seen this article only by accident as beBee is scaling up I tend to miss stuff now but back to the topic and just as well we have people like Paul \ to educate us as I am fairly intuitive type of individual and don't use plans techniques etc..but I tend to keep it simple so I suppose I am not that wrong :-)

Lisa Gallagher

5 years ago #12

I was waiting for you to mention Hemingway Paul \. OMG, I can't seem to write less, as in wtf? My last buzz was full of info but it must have bored most because it was fairly dry due to all the facts I used. I need to practice these techniques more. You are an excellent teacher my friend, and I need to be a better student ;-)

Paul "Pablo" Croubalian

5 years ago #11

#14
Thank, you, Denise Da Vinha Ricieri

Gert Scholtz

5 years ago #10

Paul \. Thank you Paul. The Hemingway app is extremely useful - I never knew about it. So. From. Now. Short sentences.
Thank you for this useful information Paul \. I use the Hemingway app and find it to be quite useful. I am an adverb user and I am trying to cut down my use of them.

Phil Friedman

5 years ago #8

#7
Paul \ fans, of which I am one. Living in Miami Beach, Candice should know enough Yiddish to know the meaning of "schtupf", but for anyone who doesn't, it has to do with an act of.... ah....congress. But I really didn't mean the entendre, although it is funny in the context. Do you have an app for checking that sort of mistake? Cheers!

Paul "Pablo" Croubalian

5 years ago #7

#5
hmmmm, I assume "foot for thought" is a typo. Or, maybe it was a Freudian slip. Either way, I laughed out loud. Thanks for the share and the laugh, Phil Friedman

Paul "Pablo" Croubalian

5 years ago #6

#4
LMAO When I was writing this I asked myself, "I wonder how long it will take for Phil to comment?" I know we disagree on this, and that's okay. I do not find it condescending at all, more like a respect for the readers' time. Still, "know your reader" trumps anything written here or elsewhere. We write for them. I write tech pieces aimed at engineers in a much different voice than those aimed at marketers. Different readers, different styles.

Phil Friedman

5 years ago #5

Sometimes a piece is good enough to share it, even if you don't agree with it. Writers should read this post by Paul \, who provided foot for much thought about what constitutes good writing...

Phil Friedman

5 years ago #4

Paul \, you knew I'd comment on this, didn't you. Well, here it is. I believe very strongly that the use of language models (i.e., somewhat mirrors) the way we think. And I gave up wanting to converse only with third-graders a long time ago. Writing down to a third-grade level seems to me to be condescending, just as titling a book, "Idiot's Guide to [whatever]". Hemingway at times may have written at a third grade level, but if so, that was when he was writing as a journalist -- although I have yet to see a demonstration of the truth of that claim. But I do grant that saying that is a good hook -- for those who read and think at a third-grade level. That said, I have not been able to gain any traction to speak of on Medium, I think because it rates the time to read, and my calculated lengths (including my standard afterword self-promotional pitch) are too long for the majority of readers on that platform, and certainly too long for the editorial staff to pay any attention. But that is something I'll have to live with. Good piece, nevertheless. Something of interest to writers, which I am sharing in the Writing and Publishing Hive. Cheers!

Paul "Pablo" Croubalian

5 years ago #3

#1
Fixed and added direct links to play it extra safe. Thanks, Kevin Pashuk

Paul "Pablo" Croubalian

5 years ago #2

#1
oops, big fingers little keyboard. Fixing that now

Kevin Pashuk

5 years ago #1

Great post Paul \. I'll try to keep this comment simple. You've spelled 'HemingwayApp' two different ways in your post. If you type 'HemingwayApp.com' into your address bar, you'll get the correct website. If you type 'HemmingwayApp.com' (2 'M's) you get a completely different site that will tell you that your computer is infected... DON'T click on the OK button or the helpful hackers will install a virus on your computer. Instead, use the Task Manager to stop your browser session. Other than that little incident, I fully support the idea of simplicity when writing. Too many blog posts give me a brain callus.

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