Most people who attended professional school know how to write. But they know how to write for a professional, technical audience. Writing for a lay audience on the internet is a far different proposition. This is why we’ve shared some of our best tips for web writing over the past few months.
Today I want to share two editing tools for writers that can smooth the transition from more technical writing to web writing.
The Flesh-Kincaid Grade Level Readability Formula
The first tool is the Fleisch-Kincaid Grade Level Readability Formula. This formula evaluates a written passage and assigns it a reading level. A passage given an 8.4 is readable by an 8th grader, while a passage given 11.9 is most appropriate for a 12th grader. The scale takes into account the number of words per sentence and the number of syllables per word. Here’s the formula:
FKRA = (0.39 x ASL) + (11.8 x ASW) – 15.59
Where ASL is Average Sentence Length and ASW is Average Syllables per Word.
So get out your calculator and start counting syllables.
There are lots of tools that will calculate the reading level for you. Microsoft built my favorite right into Word. Just change the settings to calculate the reading level after it performs a Spelling and Grammar check. You can cut and paste your text into this free online calculator. Or you can do a web search and find a number of online calculators.
So what grade level do you want to aim for? I like 8th grade. Bliss likes 6th grade. There is no single standard, but it’s probably lower than you think.
Shane Shaw over at Contently wrote a nice article about the concept. The big takeaway is that a lower level does not mean that the writing is unsophisticated. On the contrary, many of the greatest writers produce prose at a surprisingly low reading level. J.R.R. Tolkein wrote at a 7th grade level. Jane Austen wrote at a 6th grade level. You can write simply and still create something that is insightful, nuanced and interesting to read. In fact, the king of simple prose, Ernest Hemingway wrote at a 4th grade level! Which brings us to the second tool I want to talk about today.
The Hemingway App
If you are new at this, prepare for the grade level of your writing to be around grade 11 or even higher. Medical topics tend to bump up the reading level a bit because of complex terminology. The first time I started using these tools my writing was running around grades 13 to 15. It felt like a unattainable task to bring a grade 14 article down to grade eight, believe me. But lucky for us, there is a tool to help with that.
The Hemingway App is available online or as a download to your computer. It allows you to paste in your text and check it for several issues that affect readability.
Sentence Complexity – Hemingway will highlight your difficult sentences and your very difficult sentences. There is some good news in this. Many readability problems come from complex sentences. Often just breaking these sentences down into smaller sentences will improve the readability. Just remember to do your best to smooth these shorter sentences out so it doesn’t come off as choppy.
Complex Phrases – The app highlights words that have a simpler alternative and suggests a replacement, such as “use” for “utilize.” There is no need to use complicated words when a simple word will get the job done. Unless you’re trying to show off your vocabulary. Then utilize it is.
Adverbs – Adverbs are the whipping boy of the writing world.
The road to hell is paved with adverbs. – Stephen King
It’s an adverb, Sam. It’s a lazy tool of a weak mind. – Casey Schuler (Kevin Spacey’s character in Outbreak)
If you see an adverb, kill it. – Mark Twain
There are people who disagree with this sentiment. But the reality is that many writers overuse adverbs and would do well to cut most of them from their writing. Hemingway is happy to help you out by highlighting each of them for you.
Passive voice – The passive construction makes writing feel blah. Look at the difference here:
You are loved by me.
I love you.
I don’t know about you, but I prefer to hear those three little words. It just sounds more powerful. If you’ve been writing for journals, you may have written in the passive voice to sound more objective. It’s standard in science writing, but here on the web you’ve got to knock it off. No more passive voice!
Some Things to Remember
Remember that these editing tools for writers are just tools. The goal in all of this is to make your writing easier to read for people, not to please a formula. The grade level assessment and the Hemingway App suggestions are just that – suggestions. You are not obligated to change something just because of a suggestion. Simply consider it, make the change or not, and then move on.