There’s a mathematical equation that can calculate the readability score of any book, article, blog post or Tweet. Just copy and paste your text in a little box and it will pop out a number between 0 and 100.
70 or higher is great (That means 7th graders can easily understand you writing).
50 or higher is good (Most high school students can understand you).
Less than 40 and most university-educated folks won’t understand what you wrote.
But can a simple number really tell you how good your writing is?
Knowing your readability score is a great starting point to see if your writing is going to be easily understood by most of your audience or not. But there’s a lot more to readability than just a number. (We’ll cover exactly how to measure your readability score later in this article).
Good writing requires communicating your ideas so well to your readers that they can quickly and easily understand what you mean. Great writing should feel effortless to read.
That’s your goal. You want your readers to effortlessly follow along as your writing guides them through your stories and ideas.
There are several areas of writing you can focus on to dramatically improve the readability of your work:
- Using simple words your readers can understand
- Defining new or complex words right away
- Simple sentence structures
- Using one idea per sentence
- Active sentences
- Reading supplements (like pictures or graphs)
- Creating soundbites
- Using personal language
- Humor and entertainment
We’ll talk about how you can improve your readability in each of these areas in this article.
First, let’s talk about why readability is so important and why it should be a top priority for any writer.
Why Readability is Really Important
Having a great idea for a book isn’t enough. You have to be able to communicate your great ideas to your readers so they can really get it.
There are countless “authors” out there with great books still left inside them. Don’t let that be you in ten years.
Reading your work should feel effortless. If reading your book feels like work, only a very few dedicated readers will stick with you to the end. If reading your book feels effortless, you’re going to keep a lot more of your readers entertained.
More happy readers = More impact and more money
Think of your written work like a puzzle. You want your readers to be able to solve your puzzle as easily as possible. That’s readability.
You can load up your writing with huge run-on sentences, use complex language, strange phrases and foreign words to make your puzzle a little more difficult…
Or you can use simple sentence structure as much as possible. Short sentences can help improve readability.
Short paragraphs are great, too.
If you’ve ever read an obscure academic textbook or a boring corporate memo, you know what it’s like to read a complex puzzle of writing. It’s a lot of work without much reward.
It can be fulfilling solving that puzzle, but most readers won’t see it that way. They’ll just give up long before the final puzzle piece falls into place.
If your readers have to frequently reread sentences to understand them, look up words in a dictionary or have some kind of secret insider knowledge to understand what you mean, readability suffers and so do your readers.
When you put in a little extra effort to make your writing more readable, you’re giving a huge gift to your readers and to yourself. People will be able to understand your writing much more easily and will be more likely to remember key points and ideas. They’re more likely to read your work in the future and tell others about you, creating a win-win situation for everyone.
Now let’s talk about how to improve your writing readability:
1. Use Simple, Shorter Words
Shorter words are easier to read and understand. The more short words you use in your writing, the easier it’s going to be for your readers to understand you.
For example, you should never use the word “deleterious” when you can just write “harmful.” Showing off your above-average vocabulary in your writing won’t help you get above-average book sales. All it will do is confuse some of your readers and make them give up.
In my experience, using big words feels good. I love learning and I especially love learning new words, their meanings, their histories and how to use them in
novel new ways.
We get a little dopamine boost in our brain every time we find a new way to use a new or complex word in our writing just like we do when we find that final puzzle piece and pop it into place.
It’s hard to overcome our own body’s inner reward system, but we have to be rigorous with our writing if we want to get to the top of our field and stay there.
So do yourself and your readers a favor: always use shorter words when possible to make your point.
2. Define Complex or Strange Words
You should strive to use simple, clear, concrete language. When you absolutely must use a complex or strange word, it’s your duty to help your readers understand exactly what that word means.
Let’s say you’re writing a novel set in a strange universe where people use a form of currency called “Onga” (yes, I know it’s a strange name. I just made it up).
Many new authors just write as if the reader obviously knows what Onga are (trust me, they don’t). This is a big mistake.
If you have to use a complex or strange word you know many of your readers will not understand, you need to define that word for your reader immediately (usually either in that same sentence or the next sentence).
You can help your readers understand complex words by giving them clues.
You can use parentheses:
I was all out of Onga (the Ong’s form of digital money).
You can use a dash:
I was all out of Onga—money.
You can use a footnote:
I was all out of Onga.
 The Ong’s form of digital money.
You can use an endnote (I personally hate endnotes. They’re never anywhere near where you need them to be if you actually want to read them):
I was all out of Onga.
You can leave clues in dialogue and make the reader figure it out themselves:
“Do you have any Onga left?” asked Jake.
“Nope, I’m broke,” she said.
Remember, it’s your job to make sure your readers understand what you mean. To do that, your readers must understand the words you use.
When you have to use a complex or potentially confusing word, always make sure you leave plenty of clues for your reader to discover the meaning of that word as soon as possible.
3. Write short, simple sentences
Short, simple sentences are easy to understand.
Really long, convoluted sentences will only serve to confuse your readers and distract them from the important ideas and information they really need to succeed in such a busy, constantly changing world with distractions all around us.
Ugh… can you feel it? That last sentence just feels wrong. It’s way longer than it needs to be.
Simple is better.
See, we’re learning together! Isn’t that great?
4. Communicate one main idea in each sentence
If you need to communicate more than one idea do it in more than one sentence. Period.
A big rookie mistake is trying to create “great sentences.” You don’t need to write amazing, unique sentences to be a great writer. It’s actually a lot easier, faster and more fruitful to write a lot of simple sentences that each communicate one idea.
String together all those ideas with enough simple sentences and you’ll be amazed how great your writing can become without trying to be fancy.
5. Use the active voice in your writing
So many first-time authors make the mistake of writing in the passive voice. It’s an instant giveaway that you’re not ready for your book to be considered for a serious publishing deal. Most literary agents I’ve talked to will stop reading a submission if they notice more than a handful of sentences in the passive voice.
I’ve also heard that a brain cell dies every time someone reads a sentence in the passive voice (Actually, that’s not true. I just made it up.)
Active Voice Example: Bob ate the apple.
Passive Voice Example: The apple was eaten by Bob.
(Sorry for your lost brain cell. May it rest in piece.)
Notice that not only does it take more words to write in the passive voice, it’s also just a very awkward way to organize ideas.
If I came up to you and asked, “Hey, where’d my apple go?” you would never say “the apple was eaten by Bob.” You would simply say, “Bob ate the apple.”
If you were trying to protect Bob or downplay the significance of the event, you might say, “The apple? Oh, it was eaten by Bob.” Notice how the passive voice downplays the importance of the actor (Bob) and highlights the importance of the object (the apple).
There are times when using the passive voice can help you better illustrate a point or tell your story better. Those times are few and far between.
Writing in the passive voice is a great way to bore your readers and confuse them at the same time.
Some people know how to use a lot of words without saying much. You should strive instead to use a few words to say a lot.
Therefore, I recommend always writing in the active voice unless you have a very good reason to mix things up and kill a few brain cells.
6. Use Subheadings for Nonfiction
If you’re writing nonfiction, consider using subheadings generously throughout your work.
Many readers like to skim text. Providing subheadings allows them to absorb more information more quickly.
Subheadings are like little rest stops along the road. If you make your reader go too far without a rest stop, they’re going to get grumpy and give up (and they may not even know why). Give them a rest every now and then and they’ll better absorb the information you’re trying to share.
Subheadings can also be a great tool for keeping your writing organized. If you tend to ramble or go on tangents, writing subheadings can help you stay on track.
When you find a few paragraphs have gone off topic from your subheading, you can choose to create a new subheading or delete the rambling text.
7. Use Pictures or Visual Elements
Using pictures, graphs, charts or other visual elements can help your reader better absorb and retain the information you’re trying to share.
Charts are a great way to improve readability so I created this super cool pie chart to show you why you should use charts as much as possible in your writing.
8. Create Soundbites
If you want your message to be remembered by millions of people, you need to create short, easy-to-remember phrases that will stand out and get “stuck” in the minds of your audience.
In the media, these highly memorable phrases are called soundbites. Many bestselling authors and entrepreneurs have paid thousands of dollars to work with media training experts just to come up with a few useful soundbites for promoting their books or brands.
The soundbites you’re probably most familiar with are slogans:
“Just do it.”
“Set it and forget it!”
“Can you hear me now? Good.”
You’ve probably already memorized hundreds if not thousands of soundbites and slogans like these. But soundbites can be used for much more than just advertising on TV. You can use them anytime you need to communicate to your audience and connect with them.
You can use soundbites in your writing, in interviews, promotional materials and any time you need to make sure your message will stick in the minds of your audience and be remembered.
Once you start to study soundbites, it will activate the Reticular Activating System (RAS) and you’ll start to see them everywhere (just like when you buy a new car and you start to see that same car model everywhere you go).
You’ll see soundbites all over the political scene as well. In fact, some politicians seem like the only things they know how to say are prepared soundbites for the masses (The Republican debate where Chris Christie called out Marco Rubio on constantly repeating memorized lines comes to mind) .
Donald Trump has gotten massive exposure for his soundbite, “Who’s gonna pay for the wall?”
Regardless of what you think of Donald Trump, I bet you know his answer to that question (Mexico?)!
Here are some great ways to get you thinking of ideas for your own memorable media soundbites that will help your message stand out from the crowd and be remembered:
Use Similes, Metaphors or Analogies: “Float like a butterfly, sting like a bee. The hands can’t hit what the eyes can’t see.” – Muhammad Ali. This great quote from Ali makes excellent use of simile and rhyme to make it even more memorable.
Lists of Three: Bigger Leaner Stronger is a bestselling book with a very catchy title.
Using lists of three can make your message easier to remember for your audience (Neither Bigger Leaner nor Bigger Leaner Stronger Faster have quite the same feeling when you say it out loud) .
Contrasts, Conflicts, or Paradoxes: “Our food is fresh. Our customers are spoiled.” – FreshDirect, online grocer.
This is a very memorable soundbite, but personally I’m not a fan of it. The word “spoiled” has a negative connotation, and I wouldn’t want to unintentionally insult my customers. Just because a soundbite is memorable doesn’t mean you should use it. Make sure the message you’re sending matches your intention.
Surprise Twist: “I will not exploit, for political purposes, my opponent’s youth and inexperience.” – President Ronald Reagan, responding to opponents who said he was too old for a second term.
This is possibly one of the greatest political soundbites of all time. I bet most of the people who watched the election coverage when Ronald Reagan was running remember this line well 30 years later.
Tweaked Clichés: “Money doesn’t grow on trees, but it does grow faster in credit unions without those greedy big-bank fees.”
Making a few tweaks to a cliché can be an excellent way to create a very memorable soundbite.
I made up a few soundbites of my own to help explain the importance of readability in your writing:
“Using big words won’t earn you big royalty checks.”
“It’s better to use short words and be understood than to use big words that go over your reader’s head.”
“If kids can’t read it, most adults won’t.”
“Readability is cool so stay in school.”
You can learn more awesome tips for creating memorable media soundbites and getting more exposure with your message in The Media Training Bible by Brad Phillips.
Another great book for coming up with great slogans, soundbites and marketing messages for your business is POP!: Create the Perfect Pitch, Title, and Tagline for Anything by Sam Horn.
9. Don’t Be Afraid to Get Personal
I try to use personal language as much as possible in my writing. You should too.
Copywriters and advertisers have long known they can get people to pay attention better to their headlines or copy if they use personal language and pronouns like “I” and “you.” In contrast, writing in the 3rd person can be incredibly boring.
Compare these headlines:
He Wrote a National Bestseller by Learning How to Increase His Writing Readability
Give Me a Week and I’ll Show You My Writing Readability System That Has Created Countless Bestsellers
Neither of these headlines are all that great, but the second one will likely outperform the first because of the use of the personal pronouns “you,” “my” and “me.”
10. Organize Your Information
Well-organized writing saves the reader a lot of time and energy.
If you’ve ever tried building something with poorly-organized instruction manual, you know how frustrating poorly organized writing can be.
It’s not enough for your writing to have all the information your readers needs! It must be well-organized so your readers can easily find and use the information they need in non-fiction.
In a work of fiction, if your writing isn’t well-organized, the reader will probably just wind up incredibly confused and stop reading.
It can help to think of things in sequential order.
What does my reader need first?
And so on…
You can use lists to organize large groups of information. If your reader might need to refer back to your list of information repeatedly, consider creating a checklist they can download, print and use often.
11. Use a Handful of Humor and Entertainment
Lastly, consider adding some humor to your writing. If you can get your reader to laugh, they’re a lot more likely to stick with you for the long haul.
You don’t always have to take yourself seriously. Sometimes having a little fun with your writing can make the writing process more fun for you, and it can definitely make reading your book a lot more entertaining for your readers!
250 Things You Should Know About Writing by Chuck Wendig is a great example of an author getting his message across with plenty of humor along they way (it’s also a great book for any writer wanting to up their game).
How to Measure Your Readability Score
There are several methods for measuring the readability of your work including the Flesch-Kincaid Grade Level score, Gunning-Fog Score, Coleman-Liau Index, SMOG Index, and the Automated Readability Index.
There are plenty of tools and websites you can use to measure the readability of your work. I like the handy tool from Readability Score because it uses all the different measuring systems I just mentioned.
I try to shoot for at least a 60-70 score on the Flesch-Kincaid readability scale (which rates on a scale from 0-100, with a score of 90-100 being easily readable for the average 5th grader). At a 60-70, the teenager can easily read and understand your work. If your writing scores below a 50, you’re probably losing or confusing a good portion of your readers.
This article scores a 71.5 on the Flesch-Kincaid readability scale.
For comparison, Reader’s Digest magazine scores around 65, Time magazine scores 52 and articles from the Harvard Law Review usually have a readability score in the low 30s (which is one of the reasons I never read the Harvard Law Review).
It’s important to realize that readability measurements are just numbers based on how long your sentences are and how often you tend to use words with lots of syllables. Readability scores should only be used as a general guideline to give you a general idea of how easy your work is to read.
If you follow the guidelines in this article such as writing shorter sentences and using smaller words instead of complex or archaic words, you’ll find your readability scores will improve automatically.
More importantly, your readers will find reading your work takes a lot less effort and can be a lot more fun.
At the end of the day, your readability score is just a number. What really matters is that your readers can easily understand all the ideas you meant to communicate.
That’s what readability is all about for me.
How about you?
 The Ong’s form of digital money (see, I told you endnotes are never where you need them to be).
Tom Corson-Knowles is the founder of TCK Publishing, and the bestselling author of 27 books including Secrets of the Six-Figure author. He is also the host of the Publishing Profits Podcast show where we interview successful authors and publishing industry experts to share their tips for creating a successful writing career.