Many companies and writers talk of the need for their communications to be written in plain English. But what does that mean and how do you know if it is or not? This is where readability stats can really come in handy.

If you’ve found your way to this article, I’m going to assume you fall into one of four groups and that you want to know:

  1. How to switch readability statistics on in Microsoft Word
  2. What the numbers mean
  3. What a good score is
  4. How to improve your scores

Let’s work our way through each of these in turn.

How to switch readability statistics on in Microsoft Word

In Word, go File > Options > Proofing, then under the When correcting spelling and grammar in Word heading tick the Show readability statistics box. Then, next time you run spell check you will see this box afterwards with the readability stats at the bottom:

Word readability statistics

What do readability statistics mean?

Passive Sentences is telling you what percentage of sentences within your piece are in the past tense. Ideally you want as many of the sentences to be in the present, or active, tense. Of course you’ll rarely have no past tense at all, so some passive sentences are allowed (see next section for how much).

Flesch Reading Ease is between 0 and 100 and is a result of a formula that factors in total words, total sentences, total syllables and a few other bits. Generally speaking:

  • A score from 90 to 100 can be understood by an 11 year old
  • A score from 60 to 70 can be understood by 13 to 15 year olds
  • A score from 0 to 30 is best understood by university graduates

Flesch-Kincaid Grade Level relates to the U.S. grade level, with the score showing what grade the reader would typically have to be in to understand the text.

What is a good readability score?

Throughout my near 5 years working for an international publishing group, the editorial team always spoke about a reading stat ‘Gold Standard’. To get ‘Gold’ you must get 60+ on reading ease and 8.0 or less on FK score. If you can bolster that with less than 10% passive sentences, you’ve cracked it.

How to improve your readability scores

Taking a look at some of the other articles I’ve written, here are their scores:

This isn’t me blowing my own trumpet here. Not every article I write gets a Gold. For example, The True Value of Seminars, Bootcamps and Webinars gets 69.8, 7.2 and 21% (a big thumbs down on the passive sentences there!).

Sometimes the subject matter or tone of the piece simply doesn’t lend itself to a great score. A sure-fire way to ruin your scores is to talk in jargon and to use industry speak. Taking a couple of random company About Us pages as examples, we can see how using jargon and not using plain English hurts readability:

So how do you get better scores? It comes back to the formula factors mentioned earlier – total words, total sentences and total syllables.

The key one is syllables. The stats improve when you use less of them. When you think about how people talk, and that when we talk we use simpler English, we use less syllables and tend not to use jargon. Yet when we write the urge is to use longer, more complex words and sentences, which subsequently have more syllables and so wreck your scores. The trick then is to use less syllables, per word, per sentence – in short, write like you talk.

A word of warning though, readability stats can be misleading. Just because you’ve mastered the art of getting good stats every time you write doesn’t automatically make the piece good and easy to follow too.

If you write a piece of content that is only full of short, low syllable words and short sentences, then the piece will sound staccato and unnatural. An easy way to see if you’ve fallen into this trap is to read the piece out loud. You’ll find that a good piece of content will flow naturally, and you won’t stumble over any of the words. If you do stumble, you’ll probably find that they are the areas with longer words and terminology. Iron these kinks out and you will be left with an informative, well written article that is also easy to read.

p.s. so you know and for complete disclosure the readability scores for this 823 word article, up to but not including this p.s., are 70.7 readability, 7.5 FK and 8% passive.