Most people read below university level, and sat in the GPs office we’re more likely to pick up a dog-eared copy of Take A Break than leaf through New Scientist.
Shock finding! But research confirms it. People prefer to read well below what they’re capable of.
The reason is simple: if you’re using up mental energy decoding inscrutable texts, you probably aren’t enjoying yourself. You’re certainly not being lit up by cleverly crafted calls to action.
Words matter. They always did. But the wrong combination – too densely packed or composed without care – can cost you opportunities. Pick the right words and you can spur action, spark emotion, even kickstart a new relationship. But how do you start?
By focusing first on the needs of your audience – and the key issue of readability.
Reading is Child’s Play
The average Brit’s reading comprehension hovers around 9 years – meaning they’ve achieved the reading ability normally expected of a 9-year-old.
While there are differences by age, region, and economic status, there is at least broad agreement on that. The Sun has a reading age of 8. The Guardian has a reading age of 14.
In practice that means a sizable portion of the UK’s population can’t comprehend text written much above Year 4.
Don’t despair the state of the nation however, books written at this level include The Harry Potter series (of course), but also fully grown-up literary classics like:
- The Old Man and the Sea, by Earnest Hemingway
- The Great Gatsby, by F. Scott Fitzgerald
- Even Jane Austen and J.R.R. Tolkien wrote at a pre-teenage level.
What that means is that the X-factor of great writing won’t necessarily be found in 50p words and complex sentence structures; it lives in compelling and shareable stories.
Writing with too much sophistication actually detracts from engagement. If readers are too focused on digesting and understanding material, the key messages and storytelling techniques you’ve woven in could just bounce off.
It’s OK to aim low
A person who reads at a 9-year-old level has the skills to consume words and sentences in a book pitched at a higher reading age. But they wouldn’t be able to absorb much of what they’d read.
- Reading is the mechanical process of looking at and interpreting written words.
- Comprehension is the ability to understand and derive meaning from those words.
While reading is a skill, comprehension brings together a range of cognitive activities. The way we understand a book for example isn’t static – it can evolve as our understanding of the world grows and matures.
Of course all your readers are clever, literate, and highly attractive (ours too.) But even if you’re writing for the UK Chapter of MENSA, your website should be written on or about the Year 4 level.
(Sorry Mensa but your site needs some re-writing).
Why? Because the higher your site’s readability level, the lower the number of people who will comprehend it.
For a business audience or premium consumer technology brand you might think its correct to write blog posts at the sixth-form level. But think about it – anyone who reads below that will have a tough time taking it in.
Patronising the audience shouldn’t be a worry. Lots of clever people enjoy the novels of Dan Brown. All of them will appreciate web writing that’s simple and clear.
How to Determine Your Site’s Readability
Anyone who uses WordPress and Yoast will recognise the Flesch-Kincaid formula that gives you that red, amber or green light for readability.
We don’t need to dive into the minutiae of readability scores (there are dozens) but F-K is popular because it’s sensible and it works. Here’s the formula for clarity:
First it measures the average length of a sentence. Then it measures the average complexity of a word. Sentence length and word complexity, simple.
Complete the operation and Flesch-Kincaid calculates a number. You want that number to be less than eight.
Three Ways to do Readability Right
Keep Sentences Short
Opting for brevity is the fastest way to keep readability scores in line. Look for opportunities to break up long sentences. Cull prepositions ruthlessly. Drop the filler and eliminate repetition.
“Mensa has members from so many different countries and cultures with differing points of view, that for Mensa to espouse a particular point of view would go against its role as a forum for all points of view.”
… becomes …
“With such a broad diversity of views and backgrounds, MENSA keeps an open mind.”
Pack Away the Thesaurus
The more syllables a word contains, the higher that word’s reading level. So when a simple word will do, use it:
- Forgive instead of Absolve
- Near instead of Adjacent
- Improve instead of Ameliorate
- Think instead of Cogitate
Create Space with Punctuation
Using punctuation tactically (as well as correctly) can improve the readability of website copy.
I’m talking about more than full stops and commas. Website readers, viewing copy on a backlit screen, like o have white space and breaks to make the page easy to scan.
Outside of graphic design there are three powerful punctuation techniques you can use break up and visually segment content:
The Em Dash
An em dash is an extra long hyphen.
- A hyphen looks like this –
- An em dash looks like this –
There are accepted rules in journalism about how the em dash should be used, but here at Assertive we’d suggest using them frequently – even gratuitously.
They are meant to be used much like a semicolon: to separate a clause that’s part of a sentence, but needs additional separation from the main idea.
Em dashes can also play the comma role, but with the added benefit of creating white space for the reader’s eyes to rest.
Here’s an example:
“The point of SEO — regardless of the business you’re in — is to deliver targeted traffic.”
Like the em dash, colons provide more opportunities for a reader to rest the eyes, slow down, and consume each phrase in a comfortable rhythm you create. Here’s what I mean:
“The study made a surprising discovery: Site traffic with the highest conversion rate was being referred from Instagram.”
Bulleted and numbered lists break up text and make it scannable, while forcing you to be crisp and concise. Lists if 3-5 items are most effective. At six or seven, reading comprehension begins to drift.
Aren’t we dumbing down in an age of dumbing down?
Crafting web copy for the needs of a discreet audience is hard. Audiences can be awkward and demanding. They might like acronyms or have their own industry lingo.
They’re rarely homogenous. They typically don’t know what you know.
So explaining something clearly and crisply to them isn’t dumbing down, its simplifying for easy consumption. Crafting content to accommodate readability, and Year 4 comprehension levels, makes information easier to read, understand, and use.
Everybody appreciates clarity.
Because you’ve read this far:
- This article scored a Flesch-Kincaid level of 8.2 on first draft
- The final draft scored 7.9