Readability Scales: Do They Matter and Which Do You Trust?
Flesch-Kincaid, Gunning Fog, reading ease, grade level… if all this sounds like gibberish to you, you’re not alone. Some, however, you’ll probably recognise as terms which describe the level of your writing’s readability.
The question is: How important is it to understand your readability score, and what does it mean for your story?
Before we start, it’s important to note this article isn’t about legibility, so your messy handwriting and curly fonts are safe… for now.
Readability is the measure of how easily the content of your text can be comprehended, either by its intended audience or others. It deals with complexity, syntax, spelling, grammar, and other technical issues. Sadly, it can’t deal with plot holes or fix your protagonist’s motivation, which are problems you’ll need human intervention for.
A better readability score naturally means that reading your work is easier for everyone – but it’s especially important for those who do not have high reading comprehension, such as children or people with learning disabilities. In readers with average or poor reading comprehension, refining the readability level of a text from so-so to good can make all the difference when it comes to truly getting your message across.
Research into language science first began in the 1880s, and there have been more than 200 readability formulas developed since the 1940s. Of those, some are seen as more reliable than others, and most are specific to certain industries and audiences.
So with so many readability tests out there, does it matter which one you use?
Short answer: No, with an if.
Long answer: Yes, with a but.
First, the yes: For anyone except the most obscure beat poet, readability matters – but you need to be sure of your goals. You are writing to communicate some kind of idea, so readers should receive that idea loud and clear. If they can’t, the whole exercise is pointless.
But will the text be shown to a general audience, or specialists? What’s the average age of your reader? Do you want to come across as accessibly conversational, or deliberately verbose? Answering these questions will ultimately determine which readability score you should use, because using a test not designed for your audience will generate a misleading result.
Here are a few of the most popular readability tests:
Flesch Reading Ease: A general formula used for all kinds of text.
Flesch-Kincaid: Ideal for manuals, forms and other technical documents.
Gunning Fog: Perfect for business publications and journals.
Powers, Sumner, Kearl: For text geared toward children aged 7-10 years.
Coleman-Liau: For text aimed at 4th grade to college level readers.
Each of these, and more, can be found built right into AutoCrit – so you can refine your edited text to fit your audience with even more precision.
So readability does matter, in the sense that ensuring readers can comprehend and enjoy your work is crucial – and the benchmarks given by readability scales can help.
But to swing back to the short answer – no, with an if – it generally doesn’t matter which readability test you use if you have a general text meant for a wide audience. Put simply, if your audience won’t experience nasty side effects if they cannot read your text, or you’re not specifically writing for an audience with below average reading comprehension, you shouldn’t worry yourself with hitting a perfect readability score.
If you use readability as a crutch, you risk dulling your message and restricting the language you use – which could lead to missed opportunities to teach someone a fabulous new word (how many of us spent our younger days with a book in one hand and a dictionary in the other?!), or creating just the right atmosphere with obscure or complex language. You may sacrifice windbag characters, or lose authenticity in your historic fiction.
That being said, if you’re writing for young children, or composing an article or other factual work, the guidance of a readability score could be just the right thing to make yourself clearly heard.
Do you put much, if any, stock in readability scores? Which do you adhere to, and where do you like to reside on the scales? Let us know in the comments below!