In last week’s posts, we discussed using the grammar check and thesaurus functions to aid your writing. In this post, we’ll talk about another related function that pops up after you complete the spell and grammar check: readability statistics.Readability stats are easy to blow right past, but if you pause for a moment to review them, you’ll gain valuable insights into your own writing and it will help you gauge how appropriate your text is to the audience. In this post, we’ll address the readability stats available in MS Word, but most word processing programs include similar functions.
The first set of readability stats are simply raw counts of the numbers of words, characters, paragraphs, and sentences in your document. These can be helpful if you’re trying to match your writing to a particular format.
Now word counts aren’t very interesting, but the next section set of stats packs more punch. It’s the averages section where you’ll find the number of sentences per paragraph, words per sentence, and characters per word. This data can tell you a great deal about your writing.
If you’re writing the great American novel, complex sentences and stylistic flourishes will serve you well. However, in most business situations, you want to get your meaning across and style is secondary. A good guideline for business is to set your paragraphs at 3 -5 sentences: long enough to make your point, but not to belabor it. Limit your sentences to 20 words or less; the longer the sentence, the easier it is for your reader to get confused or distracted. There’s no hard and fast rule for word length, but if your word average creeps beyond eight characters per word, you may want to do some editing.
No matter what these numbers say, don’t try to tailor your writing to them — they’re diagnostic tools only. Plus, they only tell you the average. They can’t capture the impact you gain with your readers by varying the length of sentences, paragraphs, and even the size of the words you choose.
The readability section is where you get the final word on what statistics can tell you about your writing. First you’ll see the percentage of passive sentences — the fewer the better, but more on this later. It will also give you two other measurements: the Flesch Reading Ease score and the Flesch-Kincaid Grade Level. The Flesch Reading Ease score measures how easy it is to read your writing. Scores range from 0-100 and most documents rank between 6 and 70; the higher the number the easier it is to read. The score formula includes average sentence length and average syllables per word. The Flesch-Kincaid Grade Level converts the score to U.S. school grades, which should give you a sense of how sophisticated your writing is and who will be able to read it. Remember that both the Flesch metrics need at least 200 words of text to be considered valid and this is only one of many ways to measure readability.
Here are the readability stats on the post you’ve just read (everything that appears before this sentence):
* Words: 503
* Characters: 2371
* Paragraphs: 7
* Sentences: 25
* Sentences per Paragraph: 3.5
* Words per Sentence 20.1
* Characters per Word: 4.6
* Passive Sentences: 4%
* Flesh Reading Ease 58.9
* Flesh-Kincaid Grade Level: 9.6