2 Tips to Write More Readable Copy

When was the last time you checked your copy’s grade level reading scores? American’s reading ability is declining. And you could be writing over your prospective customer’s ability to understand your message. In the U.S., average reading levels are at about the eighth grade level. But 1-in-5 U.S. adults read below a fifth grade level. And surprisingly, 14 percent of U.S. adults can’t read

When was the last time you checked your copy’s grade level reading scores? American’s reading ability is declining. And you could be writing over your prospective customer’s ability to understand your message. In the U.S., average reading levels are at about the eighth grade level. But 1-in-5 U.S. adults read below a fifth grade level. And surprisingly, 14 percent of U.S. adults can’t read according to the U.S. Department of Education, National Institute of Literacy.

Grade level reading scores from high school students has dropped. It’s now at fifth grade levels, and is an ominous sign for the future.

Even the writing and delivery of Presidential State of the Union addresses are at lower grade levels in the most recent generation than in generations past. President George H.W. Bush averaged 8.6. Barack Obama averages a reading level of 9.4. Bill Clinton, 9.8. George W. Bush, 10.0. Compare these scores to over fifty years ago with Dwight Eisenhower at 12.6 and John F. Kennedy at 12.3.

Given these declining readability statistics, chances are more likely than not your copy is written above the reading ability and comprehension of your prospects and customers.

So what to do?

Two tips:

First: research and test your copy to identify the reading level of your market. For reference, TV Guide and Reader’s Digest write at the ninth grade, and USA Today at a 10th grade level.

Second: use the Flesch-Kincaid Reading Ease and Grade Level test. It’s in Microsoft Word. Go to “Review,” “Spelling & Grammar,” and after you spell check your document, you’ll see readability statistics. You’ll see the number of sentences per paragraph, words per sentence, characters per word, percent passive sentences, Flesch Reading Ease (the higher the better) and ultimately, your Flesch-Kincaid Grade Level score (lower is usually better, depending on your audience).

For passive sentences, a lower ranking is better than higher. Target 10 percent or less. The passive voice is not as interesting and exciting as the active voice.

If the Reading Ease Score is lower than you want, and Grade Level score is higher than you want, isolate paragraphs and sentences to identify problematic copy. Then here’s how you change the score:

  • Use smaller words
  • Shorten your sentences
  • Shorten your paragraphs

A review of your copy’s Reading Ease and Grade Level is an essential step that should be automatic every time you write and evaluate copy.

And in the interest of self-exemplying, here is the Flesch-Kincaid score of how the copy for this blog post ranks:

  • Sentences per Paragraph: 3.0
  • Words per Sentence: 14.0
  • Characters per Word: 4.9
  • Passive Sentences: 3%
  • Reading Ease: 51.8
  • Grade Level: 9.5

Author: Gary Hennerberg

Reinventing Direct is for the direct marketer seeking guidance in the evolving world of online marketing. Gary Hennerberg is a mind code marketing strategist, based on the template from his new book, "Crack the Customer Mind Code." He is recognized as a leading direct marketing consultant and copywriter. He weaves in how to identify a unique selling proposition to position, or reposition, products and services using online and offline marketing approaches, and copywriting sales techniques. He is sought-after for his integration of direct mail, catalogs, email marketing, websites, content marketing, search marketing, retargeting and more. His identification of USPs and copywriting for clients has resulted in sales increases of 15 percent, 35 percent, and even as high as 60 percent. Today he integrates both online and offline media strategies, and proven copywriting techniques, to get clients results. Email him or follow Gary on LinkedIn. Co-authoring this blog is Perry Alexander of ACM Initiatives. Follow Perry on LinkedIn.

3 thoughts on “2 Tips to Write More Readable Copy”

  1. It should be no surprise that John Q Public has to have dummied down copy. The minds of today’s generation has become conditioned to texting in short abbreviated sentences. They want instant answers, and do have the patience to read let alone comprehend the written word.

    So maybe the solution is to write texters copy… R U ready 2 buy it? $19.99 @ BB. Hurry B4 it gone. TU. Mozy….

    Need I say more?

  2. Instead of writing down to lower grade levels, I prefer to engage a reader’s interest enough to encourage him or her to “look up” a word now and then. It’s easy to access a dictionary or thesaurus while reading an eBook. And if schools aren’t sufficiently teaching literary skills, maybe authors should pitch in.

  3. Really?
    American’s reading ability is declining.
    Grade level reading scores from high school students has dropped.
    And in the interest of self-exemplying,

    Accurate writing is easier to read.

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