How to write readable copy

How to write readable copy

Have you ever read a blog post and thought, “What a lot of pseudo-intellectual gobbledygook!” Was it packed with lots of long words and endless sentences?

When writing copy, it’s easy to get carried away and create a whole heap of hard to understand nonsense. If you’re not careful, you’ll end up with difficult to read, overlong sentences and super long words with stacks of syllables.

So here’s a few neat ways to ensure your copy is as ‘readable’ as possible.

Choosing the right reading level for your copy

It’s vital to consider your audience’s literacy level, especially if you’re marketing in Tasmania, where according to a government report (which has since disappeared from the interwebs).

“49% of adult Tasmanians (174,000 people) do not have the basic skills needed to understand and use information from newspapers, magazines, books and brochures.”

Obviously you don’t want to aim so low that your copy reads like a ‘Spot the Dog’ book, but perhaps you don’t want to appeal only to University types either.

Is your copy readable?

Here are a few tests you can conduct to see if your copywriting cuts the mustard:

The Flesch Reading Ease test

The Flesch Reading Ease test rates copy on how appropriate it is to a given age group.

It uses a complex formula to give you percentage scores which translate as:

Score Audience
90–100% Easily understood by an average 11-year-old student
60–70% Easily understood by 13- to 15-year-old students
0–30% Best understood by university graduates

It’s often said that most national newspapers are written to be understood by the average 11 year old, which means you need a Flesch score of 90% plus.

This article scored 55% before I went back and edited it to remove long words and long sentences. Now it’s 66%, so if you’re over 13 hopefully we’re all good.

There are several other readability indexes, each using a different mathematical formula to work out the reading level of your copy, including:

Free readability calculators

Unless you have a lot of free time, a good calculator and a degree in Mathematics, it’s probably easier to use some of the great free tools online. Here are a few that I use:

Scribe

Comes with a Flesch score (as well as lots of clever SEO stuff). If you’re using WordPress, it’s as easy as installing the plug-in and clicking the assess button after writing each post.

Added bytes

Gives you your score, but also the relevant US school grade for your article.

Online Utility

Although the results are laid out in a rather ugly format, this tool also provides you with: the number of words, sentences, characters per word, syllables per word and average number of words per sentence.

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  • Kate, I think I read the same post. Pseudo-intellectual is right. It didn’t seem like the post had been proofed. Big $10 words are fine (depending on your audience), but at least the subject-verb tense ought to be correct. It may have been an example of your Harry Truman quote in action.

    Thanks for the readability indexes and free calculators! I’ll have to try one of those plug-ins.

    • Hey Mitch. Ah yes, “If you cannot convince them, confuse them.” Obfuscation seems to be the aim of the game with some of our copywriting clan. Luckily I don’t know any long words so can’t use them. Thanks for commenting.

  • Rachel

    Great post – the Online Utility link is super useful. I was wondering how you added up all those syllables!

    • Thanks Rachel. Yes my mathematical skills aren’t the best, so these tool’s really help. Thanks for commenting.

  • Mark Gillingham

    Great article and thanks for the links. I work in Government and pretty much every document we output is barely readable. I’d like to run some of our recent documents through this test and see what the results are!

    • Thanks for commenting Mark. I’m pretty sure most Government content would score in the low 30s.

  • OMG!!

    OMG!! You mean you need to use a calculator to know if your copy is readable!!?? Really – that is sooooooooo sad.. You call yourself a writer?!

    • Ha! No I don’t need a calculator to know if my copy is readable. I just thought the tests were interesting an wanted to share the readability tools with people. I think most people can use common sense, but now and again (especially with cilents) it’s nice to have a result or two to back up your argument.
      Thanks for commenting.

  • AlanMorgans

    I don’t think this is restricted to copywriters. I teach at tertiary level and many of our students are barely literate with remedial literacy exercises a mandatory part of our course.
    In other areas perhaps it’s a form of insecurity or lack of professional confidence.
    From the perspective of students though it’s not their fault, the problem has to be tackled at secondary school level, though secondary teachers say it’s an issue for Primary teachers. Wherever that leaves us…

    • Hi Alan
      A really good insight. I think many students pass through the entire school system with out really learning how to write well. In fact at University I was positively encouraged to write waffly, long winded fluff.
      Perhaps a ‘plain English’ course needs to be introduced?
      Thanks for commenting.

  • Graham Price

    You can probably imagine the kind of guff that is passed to me from the client who considers him/herself every bit as good as a professional copywriter to slap up on their website, so I can see the value in these kind of tools.

    On the other hand, it’s really depressing to think that we’re dumbing down copy to lowest common denominator vocabulary, and written English is being reduced to functional, uninspiring bare bones. It won’t be long before a translation of Captain Corelli’s Mandolin is produced for the barely literate 🙁

    Maybe it’s already a bestseller in Tassie.

  • Hey Graham. Yep I think with clients they can be really useful it just illustrating why the copy doesn’t work without having to hurt their feelings/piss them off.

    If you can give them a before and after score (after your copywriter has reworked their guff) it can be a really forceful argument.

    Thanks so much for commenting.
    Kate

    P.S. No bagging Tassies on my site mate!

    • Anonymous

      haha. I’m just going by the statistic you quoted 😉

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