More on readability metrics

Man asleep at keyboardThe first step to changing something is to measure it. In my view, readability has two components. The first is the ‘hygiene’ factors that make a piece of writing easy or hard to read. Lots of things can make something hard to read (and put people to sleep!). For example:

  • Over-punctuation. Too many %$&. Too many Capital Letters.
  • The passive voice is used too much.
  • Unnecessary acronyms and abbreviations.
  • Long sentences.
  • Using long words when short ones are better.
  • Spelling and grammatical mistakes. Typos.
  • Technical things like mishandling quotations.

I think these things make it hard to read something because they increase the work that your brain has to do to make sense of the text. There is also an accessbility aspect to all this because some people find reading harder than others. A gristly piece of text will exclude more readers than a more digestible item.

The second component is more positive. It comprises the techniques used to make writing memorable, credible and compelling. They teach whole courses on this at journalism school but among the things that work in business writing are:

  • Avoiding anything that switches off readers: unsubstantiated claims, jargon, hype.
  • Using strong verbs, good analogies, pithy quotations.
  • Eliminating cliches and waffly throat-clearing.
  • Credible data from the real world.
  • Citing believable authorities and people like the reader in evidence.
  • Well-written introductions, titles and subheads
  • Making the first and last sentence of each paragraph strong.

The form and structure vary according to media. Newspaper articles favour the ‘inverted pyramid’ with conclusion first and facts later. Writing for the web is another specialism.

The list goes on and, in essence, getting the hygiene factors and the positive factors right are the job of a professional writer (ahem, like those at Articulate Marketing).

So how do you measure good writing. The hygiene factors that lose readers if you get them wrong are easier to measure. There are statistical tools that will analyse text including Flesch Grade Level, Flesch Reading Ease and FOG. Microsoft Word has a tool that will give similar results. You can get a readability plug-in for WordPress (my blogging tool of choice).

As to the second set of positive factors, I don’t know of any statistical ways to measure this. It is a professional skill like being a lawyer or architect and reputation, recommendation and track record are the main ways of assessing a writer (and by implication their writing). I plan to get some research done later this year on this aspect.

P.S. This post may look familiar. I posted it a while ago but somehow managed to delete it. So here it is again with new pictures and better formatting.

4 Responses to More on readability metrics

  1. Rachel Cooper January 22, 2011 at 1:19 pm #

    Useful post! What about “Use parallel construction for bullet points”? Even if the content is clear, the switch in structure makes the reader’s mind stumble. (Your bullet points aren’t, uh, parallel.)

    Thanks for this. You’ve given me new elements to look for in my own writing and in documents I edit for clients.

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