How to Optimise your Content for Success with the Flesch-Kincaid Scale and Readability Statistics
Like it or not, we’re all guilty of starting to read an article, a blog post or even a novel before giving up a few sentences in when the writing hasn’t immediately grabbed us. But what if users are doing the same with our own hard-crafted content?
Don’t worry, I’m not going to spend the next few minutes simply reiterating that ‘content is king’, mostly because I can’t bring myself to quote the most overused of overused phrases. However, a fair point Mr. Gates does make. And in light of Matt Cutts’ recent guest blogging exposé, there’s no denying that quality content’s reign over SEO success is more important than ever – both on and off-page.
With this in mind, there’s one secret weapon on your quest to creating quality content that you probably don’t even know that you already own:
MS Word’s readability statistics and Flesch-Kincaid scale
If this sounds scary, hold tight. It’s a simple, pain-free process that measures everything from the average sentence length of your content to the ideal reading age that it’s best enjoyed by. We’ll come to why all of this is important in a bit, but first, here’s where to find it:
In MS Word, run the standard Spelling & Grammar check under the ‘Review’ tab. I’m working with MS Word 2010, but the Spelling & Grammar check is straightforward to find in any version (shame on you if you don’t already know where it is). When this opens, click on the ‘Options…’ button in the bottom left hand corner.
Once this is done, run the Spelling & Grammar check again but this time, go through and correct your highlighted mistakes. As you reach the end of the check, a new dialogue box will open and this will reveal your readability statistics – and you’ll see them from now on, every time you run a Spelling & Grammar check. Here are mine for this very article:
What does this mean?
Ok, so everything’s all well and good now that you’ve enabled your readability statistics – but what do these numbers actually mean? And how you can use them to improve your writing skills? Let’s find out…
I’m going to group all of the subcategories under ‘Counts’ together because, for this first section, there’s not much that you need to know.
- Words, Characters, Paragraphs & Sentences: These are just your standard totals, saving you from sitting down and manually adding up your word count. Not much to see here, but useful to know nonetheless.
Here’s where it starts to get interesting (if you’re a word nerd like me) because here the statistics begin to reveal a lot about your content. Take a leaf from the likes of Orwell and Hemingway and remember just one thing: when it comes to making an impact with your writing, less is often more.
- Sentences per Paragraph: Yep, this is showing you the average amount of sentences that you use in one of your paragraphs. It might seem obvious, but writing that’s broken up into lots of lovely paragraphs is easier to understand than one giant block of text. Not only that, but it’s much easier on the eye and is much more likely to be read.
Top tip: Keep this in mind and try to stick to just two or three sentences per paragraph for easily digestible content.
- Words per sentence: That’s right; this is calculating how many words there are in one of your sentences. As with paragraphs, short sentences are what you’re aiming for here. A good rule of thumb is to try and stick to no more than 25 words per sentence, but some writers are even more strict and don’t go above 20. Using any more than this might leave your readers with no space to think, whilst you cram as many ideas into their breathing space as possible.
Top tip: I’m a self-confessed long sentence-aholic – but it’s always worth going back and refining that one rambling thought into coherent chunks of information.
- Characters per Word: This one looks at the average length of the words that you’re using in your writing. It’s a little harder to immediately say ‘shorter words are better’ because, really, it depends on the intended audience of your content. Of course, if it’s a technical piece, there’s probably good reason for your score to be slightly higher here if you’ve made use of lots of impressive terminology.
Top tip: Basically, the main thing to remember here is to be aware of your intended audience and adjust your vocabulary accordingly.
- Passive Sentences: This is calculating the percentage of passive sentences in your writing. Just in case you’ve forgotten everything from your old English classes, here’s a quick lesson on the difference between an active sentence and a passive sentence.
A sentence written in active voice means that the subject of the sentence is performing the action in the sentence:
A sentence written in passive voice means that the subject of the sentence is receiving an action by someone or something else:
Active sentences push your point across much more succinctly – and they keep your word count manageable in the process. With regards to your own writing, your goal is to get your percentage of passive sentences as low as possible.
Top tip: Try to aim for a score of 15% or below for writing that’s clear and concise.
- Flesch Reading Ease: Finally, we reach the elusive and mysterious Flesch-Kincaid system. Congratulations if you’ve made it this far. In a nutshell, the Flesch Reading Ease uses all of the above statistics to calculate how easy your content is to read on a scale of 0-100. The lower the result, the more complex your piece is to read, with a score of 100 meaning that your piece is 100% readable and you should win a medal.*
Top tip: Again, this depends on your target audience and how easy you want your writing to be. However, speaking widely, anything around 60-70 is a desirable level for the average reader.
- Flesch-Kincaid Grade Level: Your Flesch-Kincaid Grade Level takes everything we’ve covered so far and magically calculates it all into a hypothetical American school grade level. In other words, it tells you how many years of education someone needs to understand your writing. If you’re not familiar with the American grade system, simply add five onto the grade number and you’ll get the average age instead.
Top tip: As with the Flesch Reading Ease, the best age for your content entirely depends on who it is that you hope will be reading it. Does it need to be understood by a five year old or does it need to appear sophisticated and knowledgeable? The choice is yours.
Why is this important for SEO?
As a large generalisation that I can be confident is mostly true, internet users are looking to find the answers to their queries as quickly and as easily as possible.
On the one hand, if your Flesch-Kincaid level is too high and your content is too hard to read, users will quickly leave your page in search of another. On the other hand, if your content goes too far in the other direction and scores a very low grade level, users may find it too simple and a waste of their time. It may come across as lacking in value and worthy of only a quick read-through before they move on with their search. Both of these things will give your page a high bounce-rate, leaving you with users that aren’t engaging with your content.
Although by no means a requirement, running MS Word’s Flesch-Kincaid scale and readability statistics will show you exactly what your writing looks like to someone outside of your own brain (mind-blowing, I know). It gives you the chance to add the final polish to your writing, the one that might just make it a hit with your desired audience.
Put all of these tips together and you’ll be sure to have yourself a great piece of readable content; content that will reign supreme.
*there’s no medal.