Can You Write For a 5th Grader? Increase The Readability of Your Content

man reading confused

When one thinks of great writers, there are several names that come to mind. Jane Austen. J.K. Rowling. Stephen King. J.R.R. Tolkien. Ernest Hemmingway. These are authors who have inspired readers for ages. They’ve churned out many page-turners and bestsellers. It’s hard not to marvel at the depth and genius of these works. While these are certainly works of genius, what would you say is the average estimated reading level of their works?

woman happy reading cafe

Remember to KISS: Keep It Simple, Stupid.

ernest-hemmingway

5th-6th grade.

Yes, you heard correctly — the average reading level of their works is 5.5.  What truly makes these writers universally-recognized giants of the literary world is their ability to write a book that even a 5th grader can enjoy over their winter break.

How should this information change how we write content for marketing?

When writing content to market a product or service, wordier is rarely better. According to the Organization of Economic Cooperation and Development, 50% of adults in the United States can’t read a book written at an 8th-grade reading level. Even if your target demographic is well-read, keeping your message clear and to the point has many benefits. Remember to KISS: Keep It Simple, Stupid.

Clear Messaging For Conversions

When researching products and services online, most aren’t looking to read for the sake of reading. Most website visitors are looking for quick answers. Answering questions in a clear and concise way will foster a better user experience. A great user experience increases the chance that a user will take the desired action.

Readability For SEO

Many marketers are hung up on what special trick or “hacks” will help improve the SEO of their website. Due to changing algorithms, most SEO “hacks” are not sustainable. Instead of trying to game the system, writing readable content is one of your best bets. Simply put, writing content and designing a website with the user experience in mind will make search engines take notice. They are in the business of delivering the best answers to user queries. A website with a balance of great user experience, solid answers, and online trustworthiness will rank best (at least, that’s the idea). Content that is simple and clear will increases the flavor of your website’s recipe for success with search engines.

The Flesch-Kincaid Readability Test  

At this point, you’re probably wondering what deems content “readable.” The U.S. Navy was also asking this question in order to write manuals that were easy for crew members to understand. In 1975, they hired a researcher named J. Peter Kincaid and his team to develop a test for grading the readability of content. Their result is the Flesch-Kincaid Readability Test. This test used both a numbered scoring system as well as a school grade reading level to determine how easy content is to read. The best score (90-100) was considered a 5th-grade reading level. This is content that an 11-year-old student could easily understand. The worst score (30 and below) was considered very difficult to read — content most likely to be only understood by college graduates.

The Flesch-Kincaid Readability Test has set standards for works ranging from manuals for the Army to car insurance policies. Though there’s no evidence to show that search engines are using this specific test to reward websites, using the test’s success criteria to improve the readability of your content will make your writing easier to read.

How to Ace the Flesch-Kincaid Readability Test

Knowing the answers to a test can feel like cheating, but in the case of the Flesch-Kincaid Readability Test, it’s just plain helpful. The test mainly takes two factors into consideration:

  1. The total number of syllables in a word
  2. The total number of words in a sentence

Shorter words are easier to understand. Shorter sentences are easier to follow than longer sentences.  Let’s look at a few examples:

A. “The urbane activity with which a man receives money is really marvelous, considering that we so earnestly believe money to be the root of all earthly ills, and that on no account can a monied man enter heaven.”

B. “I wish I could show him what sort of man I am.

Example A is a line from Moby-Dick by Herman Melville. Due to its wordy nature and long-winded sentences, this line is rated on an 18th-grade reading level. In other words, this line seems to only be easily readable to those with a post-graduate-level college education. The entire book is scored as being on the reading level of a college graduate.

Example B is from The Old Man and the Sea by Ernest Hemingway. This line is rated as being on a 1st-grade reading level. The entire book is rated as being on a 4th-grade reading level. The book also won the Pulitzer's Prize for Fiction in 1953.

The grade level of these literary classics does not take away from their genius. However, The Old Man and the Sea is seen as a delight to read while reading Moby-Dick is seen as a reading feat.

How To Quickly Increase the Readability of Your Writing

Simplifying your own writing is, well, fairly simple. Here are a few ways to make your content more easy to read.

  1. Avoid using syllable-dense words. There is a common misconception that fancy words add value to a work. Unless you’re writing an academic paper, flowery or complex language tends to muddy your point. While using a thesaurus to improve the language isn’t necessarily a bad thing, try to choose synonyms that actually cut down the number of words and syllables in sentences.
  2. Break up longer sentences. Many of us are guilty of writing run-on sentences or sentences that may be difficult to follow. Challenge yourself to shorten your sentences as much as possible.
  3. Save readability updates for the edit. Until you have made writing clear content on the first pass a part of your writing process, put off simplifying your writing until the edit. Trying to edit as you write will impede your writing flow. While you’re fixing misspellings and grammar errors, also look for opportunities to simplify your work. Waiting to make these edits after your first draft will ensure you don’t compromise your message for the sake of readability.
  4. Use the Flesch-Kincaid Readability Test as a barometer for success. Once you have written your piece and optimized it for readability, run it through the Flesch-Kincaid Readability Test. Keep editing your content for readability until you reach your optimal score. This can be done by pasting the text into online readability tools or using readability checks built into many word processors. If you’re using Microsoft Word, this feature comes standard. For writing on web-based platforms, there is a Google Chrome browser plugin for a quick gauge of readability. For checking the readability of content in WordPress, you can use the Yoast SEO plugin to check the clarity of blog posts and webpage content.

Content that is easy to read does not make your writing weak but instead makes your point strong. Happy writing!

child enjoying reading tablet
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