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

If Content Is King, Grammar Is Queen

Growing up in a household with highly disciplined parents, my grammar was always being corrected. Whether it was ending a sentence with a preposition, misplacing a modifier or splitting an infinitive, any conversation could be stopped, at any moment. Now that the marketing world has turned its sights to “content” as a key brand engagement device, I’m hopeful that the grammar police are reinforcing their troops for a ride along. Because from where I sit, brands could use a little disciplinary action. (Yep, just gave myself a smack for starting a sentence with the word “because.” Ouch.)

Growing up in a household with highly disciplined parents, my grammar was always being corrected. Whether it was ending a sentence with a preposition, misplacing a modifier or splitting an infinitive, any conversation could be stopped, at any moment, to make sure I knew the right way to restate my thought (per the English grammar guidelines found in the little book Strunk & White’s “The Elements of Style”).

Yes—dinnertime conversation was often painful.

The lowlight was when my parents told me that my most recent letter home from college was fraught with grammatical errors, and they had seriously considered returning it to me, complete with red pencil corrections. Needless to say, my correspondence home dwindled.

Now that the marketing world has turned its sights to “content” as a key brand engagement device, I’m hopeful that the grammar police are reinforcing their troops for a ride along. Because from where I sit, brands could use a little disciplinary action. (Yep, just gave myself a smack for starting a sentence with the word “because.” Ouch.)

Over the years, I’ve certainly visited thousands of websites, downloaded hundreds of whitepapers and case studies, and, like you, I’ve received lots and lots of emails including sales tips and e-newsletters. I’m still amazed at the lack of grammar skill. Forget the typos—they’re just inexcusable—I mean the basics like “too” instead of “to,” or “between Joe and I” instead of “between Joe and me,” or a simple sentence like this: “If you would like to discuss Social Media with regards to your business further, please feel free to contact me.” Huh?

If you read my blog, you’ll know that I love commas. I think they help the reader pause, consider the point being made, and then continue to absorb the next point. It appears that idea is lost on many writers … or worse, the comma is misplaced. Consider the famous book title “Eats shoots and leaves” versus “Eats, shoots and leaves” or even “Eats, shoots, and leaves.” Personally I like serial commas, but it seems many brands have pushed them aside as part of their brand guidelines and chaos has erupted over the meaning of a sentence. [Editor’s note: Target Marketing adheres to AP Style, as do most publications, and the AP does not endorse serial commas. We apologize for any misunderstanding this may cause about whether to leave your bullets or dinner.]

I’m the first to tell you my personal grammar skills are still not entirely A+ (my parents are nodding), but there are so many proofreaders, grammarians or other online expert sources available (not to mention a nifty little tool in Microsoft Word called ‘Spelling & Grammar’) that there is simply no excuse for any company to be executing marketing materials that are anything less than perfect.

So before you create and publish your next ‘content’ deliverable, consider getting professional help. Here are a few of my favorite editorial review pros:

  • HyperGraphix (www.hgpublishing.com): This guy is smart, fast and CHEAP; Known for proofing tediously long documents on topics that would bore the average reader. Plus he works in two languages (Canadian and American) in case you’re publishing north of the border. He has an online tool that fixes sentences for free (you can’t beat that price), and if you subscribe to his tweets, he provides helpful tips and links to helpful articles.
  • Grammar Girl (grammar.quickanddirtytips.com/): Short, sharp, and to the point, her emails on grammar tips have become part of my morning reading ritual.
  • Bulletproof (www.bulletproofonline.com): Strong proofreading skills and your ideal “brand police” if you share your brand guidelines with them.

If your issue, on the other hand, is content creation, don’t leave that to your sales guy. Cough up the budget for a professional writer—one with the research skills that can thoroughly investigate the topic, identify a point of view for your brand, and write in a voice that matches your brand style. There are hundreds of excellent writers out there who are wincing as they read your materials.

So go ahead—jump on the content bandwagon—and Long live the Queen!