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Why You Should Worry About Your Content’s Reading Level

8 minute read

February 27, 2018

reading levels
Sarah Stasik

Sr. Project Manager, Crowd Content

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As a project manager and freelance writer, I’ve worked with numerous brands that wanted content within a specific readability range. Those companies often use Flesch reading ease scores or Flesch-Kincaid reading levels, which are text analysis tools included in word processors. They’re also readily available online. It’s not uncommon for clients to ask for all content at a 6th or 8th grade reading level, and they use Flesch-based tools to verify writers meet those requirements.

And I think it can be a huge mistake for some brands.

Yes, readability is obviously critical to content marketing success. But hamstringing content writers with potentially arbitrary rules verified by inaccurate measurement tools can impede your success.

Here’s a look at exactly what Flesch scoring is about, how you should (or shouldn’t use it) and some other steps you can take to ensure user-friendly content.

What Are the Flesch Readability Scores?

A variety of reading level formulas exist, but the most common I’ve seen used in content marketing are the Flesch reading ease and Flesch-Kincaid reading level calculations.

The Flesch Reading Ease Score

The Flesch reading ease score is based on the average length of sentences and number of syllables per word. The formula is:

206.835 – (1.015 x average sentence length) – (84.6 x average syllables per word)

The higher the score, the easier the content is to read. Scores from 90 to 100 are typically easy for 5th graders to understand, while scores between 0 and 30 indicate you need a college degree (or industry expertise) to understand content.

The Flesch-Kincaid Reading Level Score

This calculation provides an actual reading level for your content, again based on the average sentence length and average syllables per word. The formula is:

(0.39 x average sentence length) + (11.8 x average syllables per word) – 15.59

The results are a number, such as 8.2 or 14.7, which tells you where the content supposedly falls with regard to reading level. Someone who reads and comprehends at an 8th grade level should be able to understand a document with a Flesch-Kincaid reading level score up to 8.9.

The So-Called Best Practices and Why Reading Level Can’t Be a Hard Boundary

Most content marketers with a specific recommendation on this topic say to aim for an 8th grade reading level.

And that’s fine — you can do a lot more with an 8th grade reading level than you might think. But some brands are taking that “best practice” recommendation and making it a boundary, which is cutting off the legs of their content.

Here are three reasons you can’t set a hard stop on reading levels and expect consistent quality.

1. The formulas aren’t always accurate when you consider the function of content.

The formulas don’t take mitigating factors into consideration, such as vocabulary words. Consider this short science article from Highlights online magazine for kids. It’s 146 words, including the title, and scores a 7.6 on the Flesch-Kincaid reading grade level.

The magazine itself is for ages 6 to 12, so is this article only for its very oldest readers? Probably not; it’s scoring a bit high in part because of the word helium. It’s three syllables and appears eight times in the short piece, bringing up the average syllables per word substantially. There are only 16 total words with three syllables; the rest are all one or two syllables.

I replaced “helium” with the word “stuff,” bringing the Flesch-Kincaid reading level down to 6.3. That’s over a grade level just by changing one word.

In the real-world, a 6th grader could read this content even with the word helium in it, because the purpose of the content is to teach what helium is.

You can also see that the shorter the content, the more inaccuracy you might have. In a 50-word product description, a few brand-specific words or names could skew reading level extensively.

2. You can’t always create audience-appropriate content at a very low reading level.

Here’s where a lot of industry insiders might disagree. “It’s just that you need a good writer,” they say, and more than one blog points to Ernest Hemmingway’s The Old Man and the Sea as an example (possibly on the heels of industry influencer Shane Snow, who did this analysis in 2015).

The Old Man and the Sea scores at a 4th grade reading level. “Therefore,” a lot of people say, “You can totally write solid content at a lower reading level than you are now.”

And I say, “That’s not a valid, logical argument at all.”

Hemmingway’s book isn’t about a technology product, medical treatment option or personal finance program.  Company and product names and a few necessary niche words (which Hemmingway didn’t have to contend with) are going to naturally bring the level of your content up a bit.

Trying to scrub down to an 8th grade level if your content naturally hits a 10th grade level (and that’s also appropriate for your audience) is a waste of your resources.

3. Writing for a number instead of a person is bad form.

I’m a trained Six Sigma project manager, and a VP I used to work for once told me, “Metrics and measurements are great. But the problem is, people start working for the number instead of the customer.”

He’s right. Metrics — of any type — are one way to measure success. They alone cannot define it. And if you have the wrong metrics or worry about the wrong numbers, you’re in trouble if that’s all you’re working toward.

If you go into the content marketing process thinking, “Content is only going to be successful at a 6th grade level,” you’re going to spend a lot of time tinkering with sentences, words and syllables to get to “success.” And you might end up with content that doesn’t do what it’s supposed to: engage or convert.

Learn more: Scaling Content Creation: What Can Go Wrong and How to Mitigate the Risks

What’s the Real-Word Recommendation on Content Marketing Reading Levels?

Here’s the best reading level for content marketing: The reading level that performs for you.

Sorry. No magic number. Content marketing success takes analysis and research, so start looking at your best-performing posts to see what type of reading level is resonating with your audience.

For us, an ideal reading level seems to be right around 9th grade, and most of our posts with the best engagement numbers fall into the lower high school reading level range.

reading levels

That makes sense for our audience, which is made up primarily of small business owners, content marketers, agencies, corporate content managers and freelance writers. Typically, we can expect our audience to read at high school levels or higher, and that’s an expectation you might have with the majority of B2B content.

No matter who your audience is, though, it’s a good idea to aim for a reading level at least slightly below what they can comprehend. It’s just good customer service. Doctors looking for information online don’t have time to wade through medical-journal-level content, even if they can comprehend it.

Tips for Creating Readable Content

Once you decide what the right reading level is for your audience, avoid forcing content into a mold set by Flesch-Kincaid. It’s okay to have writers aim for a certain level but remember that the formulas aren’t completely accurate. You need to leave wiggle room for experienced writers to leverage clarity and creativity for your benefit.

Here are some tips for getting to readability without worrying overly with Flesch scores.

  • Use the right in-house or freelance writers. Content creators who understand your brand, your target audience and your niche are more likely to write at the correct reading level naturally.
  • Create target personas so you have something to aim for other than an arbitrary number. For example, It’s much easier for me to write “content an experienced nurse would understand” than “content at an 11th grade level”. Target personas provide more active instruction and information than a single number.
  • Write for clarity rather than style or academics. Online content is rarely the place to show off a stunning vocabulary.
  • Vary sentence structure; using all short sentences creates choppy content that can be annoying or seem too basic. Using all long sentences makes the content harder to read no matter how it scores.
  • Remember that reading level scores aren’t the only readability concern for online content marketing. Make your content easy to scan or read on mobile devices by incorporating headers, using varying paragraphs (with more shorter than long) and incorporating bulleted lists.

Keep reading: [EBOOK] How to Create eCommerce Content at Scale

Sarah Stasik

Sarah is an experienced writer and copyeditor with a background in project management. She’s Six Sigma Black Belt certified and leverages her knowledge of statistical analysis, process improvement and content marketing to help clients engage audiences and increase conversions.

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