Use Readability Statistics to Write Documents Your Clients or Employees Understand

Last Updated Jun 13, 2011 9:36 AM EDT

When it comes to communication, there's all sorts of bad advice out there. For example, the old adage "write like you talk" doesn't hold up well if you don't talk so good. Likewise, "write it so you'll understand it" comes up short for two reasons. First, your readers are likely to lack a lot of context, putting them at a significant disadvantage when they sit down to read your prose. And second, you might have a higher reading level than your audience.

One easy way to keep your writing in check is by reviewing its readability statistics before you click Send. That can alert you to significant issues with the comprehension level required to easily parse your writing.

Thankfully, there's a readability statistics feature built right into Microsoft Word, so you don't need to make any significant detours to get a gut check. To turn it on, go to Word Options (in Word 2010, click File and then click Options), select the Proofing section, and then check Show readability statistics. Click OK.

Now, whenever you open Spelling and Grammar (press F7) and resolve all of your various issues, Word will reward you with a summary of your stats, like this:

Most of the information presented here is pretty self-explanatory, except for the most important bit: the Flesch Reading Ease score. Here's what it means:
  • 90.0-100.0: Easily understandable by an average 11-year-old student
  • 60.0-70.0: Easily understandable by 13- to 15-year-old students
  • 0.0-30.0: Best understood by university graduates
Clearly, unless you work in an academic environment, you'll generally want to keep your readability score well above 30, and the grade level result under 10 in order to be understood by most people. [via ghacks]

Photo courtesy Flickr user surlygirl
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