If you’re anything like me and are obsessed with getting more eyeballs on your articles, then this post might help you with that.
We often read a lot about various tricks of the trade to help our stories and articles perform better. This one focuses on an easy way to achieve that and explains why it should work.
What Are Reading Levels?
Have you ever checked what reading level your writing is suitable for?
In this day and age of short attention spans (did you just see that blue car drive by?!), it’s getting harder and harder for people to focus.
This extends to the complexity of reading levels as well — more and more, people are unwilling to sift through advanced prose to get to the information they’re after.
If you’re writing on a blog or other platform, that means you might be writing at a non-optimal level for your potential readers.
Ryan McCready did an in-depth analysis of popular stories and found that writing for a sixth-grade reading level increased recommendations by a whopping 25%.
That’s a big increase for just changing a few words here and there.
The NN Group ran an interesting study comparing language complexity on a pharmaceutical website. They found huge increases in understanding by changing the text to be easier to understand.
Their reasoning? They geared the text towards simpler levels (grades five through six) to cater to lower literacy individuals — apparently 40% of the US population.
This chart from Shane Snow at Contently further amplifies the point.
If you’re writing at an eighth or ninth grade level as I have been, you’re missing out on potentially half of your readers! Still not convinced? Even Google apparently uses the ease of reading as one of the factors in its ranking engine. You could see significant gains by adjusting your writing to a fifth or sixth-grade level.
How Are Reading Levels Measured?
There are several grading systems out there for levels of readability. You can check them out on the Wikipedia page if you want.
I’ll focus on the most common method in this article: Flesch–Kincaid.
This system involves two main components, the Flesch–Kincaid Grade Level and Flesch Reading Ease.
These two systems are the opposite of each other — the lower the grade level, the higher the reading ease.
In terms of numbers, the Flesch Reading Ease scale is from zero to 100 normally, and the comparison of scores to grade levels looks like the below:
- 90–100 = fifth grade
- 80–90 = sixth grade
- 70–80 = seventh grade
- 60–70 = eighth-ninth grade
- 50–60 = tenth-twelfth grade
- 30–50 = college level
- 0–30 = college graduate level
It’s important to note these are based on the U.S. schooling system when the tests were first created in the 1970s.
Famous Examples of Different Reading Levels
If you look at some other popular publications and work, you can see their own reading levels for comparison.
- Reader’s Digest: 9th grade
- Time magazine: 12th grade
- JK Rowling: 5th grade
- Trump’s speeches: 5th grade
- Obama’s speeches: 9th grade
- Moby Dick: 11th grade
The owner of the website Contently even ran a study that showed 50 famous authors didn’t write above a ninth-grade reading level.
There’re several surprising names on that website writing at a fifth-grade level — even Hemingway, apparently.
How is Reading Level Calculated?
There are three main factors in the Flesche-Kincaid formula.
- Number of words
- Number of syllables
- Number of sentences
How are they used? At the basic level, the fewer words and fewer syllables you have in each sentence, the higher your ease of reading.
Here’s the formula for Flesch Reading Ease — the higher the score, the easier it is to read:
206.835 - 1.015*(total words/total sentences) - 84.6*(total syllables/total words)
“I like big cats, and I cannot lie” will have a higher score than, “I am especially fond of gargantuan felines, and I dare not relegate anyone to deception.”
The higher the reading ease score, the lower the grade level of reading.
How Can I See My Writing Level?
Fortunately, there are many helpful websites and programs out there today that assist with this.
Example websites to check your work (or others):
- Readability Formulas (free)
- WebFX Readability tool (free)
- Perry Marshall Grade tool (free)
Example programs to assist:
- Grammarly (free and paid versions)
- Hemingway App (free)
- Readable (free and paid versions)
How Can I Adjust My Writing for Reading Level?
Assuming you are writing at a higher than grade six reading level, and want to lower your work down to that, there are a few easy steps you can take.
The main idea should be to follow K.I.S.S. as much as possible:
Keep It Simple, Silly.
But it can take a lot of practice to change your writing style, so here’s a quick method to help with that.
Write and edit your piece as you normally would. Now add in an extra layer of editing where you’re on the lookout for words with many syllables. For each of those, see if you can exchange it with a simpler synonym — even better if that synonym is only one syllable.
Sound strenuous? It can be a bit tiring, but practice does make perfect. And besides, we have that handy little website Thesaurus.com to help.
- Use “huge” instead of “humongous”
- “Aspects” instead of “characteristics”
- “Great” instead of “supercalifragilisticexpialidocious”
You can also try to see if any of your sentences are too long. If you can break them up or shorten them, all the better.
Here’s a good guide on keeping things more simple, silly.
What Reading Level Does Your Potential Audience Have?
Many of us tend to write using that tiny little voice in our head — which often comes out as conversational. For others, it can really depend on our careers in everyday life.
People that work in the academic industry might tend to write very complex long sentences. Doctors and nurses may tend to use non-colloquial words more often than not. Fiction writers may use more descriptors and adjectives than would be used in normal conversation.
All of these are great forms of writing. But if you’re aiming to get more views and reading time on a blog article, it appears that simpler might be better.
The above advice isn’t meant for everybody. If you’re writing medical journals, write at a medical journal’s expected level. Knowing your potential audience is the key in the end.
If you want to appeal to a wider viewership by making your writing a bit easier to understand, then try some of the above advice.
Who knows? Maybe it’ll work!
And in case anyone was wondering, this article is written at an eighth-grade reading level. I guess it’s time to start practicing what I preach!
a time system based on the amount of time it takes the earth to rotate around the sun in one cycle.
Head over here for more of my written shenanigans.
You might also be interested in learning about how to use transportation theory in your writing.