Reading Levels on Your Company Blog

We blog for a lot of companies and organizations. In most cases, we do all the blogging, but we enjoy collaborating with clients. One of the issues that comes up in these collaborations is reading level.

The truth is, most successful non-writers don’t have time to write their own blogs regularly, even if they enjoy writing. The benefits of blogging are enormous, and if you wait to get those benefits till you have time to do it yourself, you probably won’t get them. Outsourcing your blogging makes sense. If you have a variety of writers working on your company blog, work together to set the reading level.

What’s too hard to read?

We’re not really becoming less literate as a society, but it’s wise to make your blog posts accessible to all the people who want and need your goods and services, and also to make them scannable. Also, since people find it slightly more difficult to read on screens, having a slightly easier reading level than your readers need is smart.

For patient education materials, which should be the majority of your web content if you’re a medical professional, the official recommendation from the American Medical Association is to keep your web content below a 7th grade reading level.

Reading level analysis tools

But how do you know? In a recent meeting with the doctors from a clinic we’re working with, one said, “I don’t really know what’s incomprehensible with topics I talk about all the time.”

That’s true.

What’s more, some people use “egregious” in normal conversation and some don’t. Just saying, “Use ordinary words” doesn’t really help.

We use the Yoast SEO Plugin. This WordPress plugin has a readability gauge. The screenshot below shows how it designates factors by red, orange, or green dots depending on the difficulty of your post.

Yoast uses the Flesch Reading Ease scale, which scores from 0 to 120:

Score Notes
90.0–100.0 easily understood by an average 11-year-old student
60.0–70.0 easily understood by 13- to 15-year-old students
0.0–30.0 best understood by university graduates

Flesch in this case is Rudolf Flesch, a reading expert whose writings used to irritate me quite a bit when I was working on my master’s thesis on literacy acquisition, but the test is the one used by the Navy, among other groups, and the Yoast tool works well.

I like using an automatic test because it sidesteps the issue mentioned above — that it’s harder to recognize a tough reading level when you’re familiar with the topic. It’s also sometimes easier for a writer to hear a machine-made score than human feelings on the subject; amateur writers in particular are notoriously touchy about their words.

Keeping the right reading level

We usually aim for a score of 50 or higher for blogs intended to be read by the general public, including older and younger readers, people with varying levels of background information, and perhaps also by people whose second language is English. For patient education materials, we want something closer to 90. We’re less cautious about blogs intended to be read by specialists in a field. However, we always want to err on the side of readability. If for some reason you really want to appeal only to the highly educated, fine; if you’d be just as happy to sell your shampoo to people without advanced degrees, keep the numbers high.

So how can you fine-tune your blog to reach the appropriate level of readability?

  • Check a post written naturally by the blogger you plan to use. People writing in their normal voices tend to write at about the same readability level most of the time. If your example comes in at a 75, don’t worry about it any more. If it’s more like a 25, then you need to make changes.
  • Reduce jargon when possible. Sometimes you don’t really have a choice; firmware is firmware and a jurisdiction is a jurisdiction. However, there are often more commonly-used terms that will do as well as the jargon. If you’re using jargon intentionally to give an “insider” feel, that’s one thing. If it’s just habit, rephrase.
  • Divide long sentences. Yoast suggests shortening sentences. We’d say do so by dividing multi-clause sentences into multiple, single-clause sentences. A clause, speaking of jargon, is a part of a sentence that contains a subject and a verb so it can be a sentence on its own.
  • Swap for more common words. If it’s still too hard to read for the goal you’ve set for your blog, it’s time to start swapping out vocabulary. English has more words than any other language, as it happens, so you will always have lots of choices when it comes to words. Changing “vexed” to “angry” will make your blog more accessible. We do this last because word choice has more effect on style than the previous steps.

Finally, don’t feel that you have to talk down to your audience or write less stylishly to achieve an easier reading level. This post is a 63.2 and it’s a far cry from Easy Readers.

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