When my daughter switched schools mid-way through high school, she was a 4.0 student. She’d sailed through her advanced English classes with As on all her essays. Then came a rude awakening. At a more demanding school, she was put into a remedial English class. They told her she had poor grammar skills, she couldn’t write or understand a complex sentence (a concept that was itself new to her) and she had undeveloped critical thinking skills. Schools in America are not all alike.
Happily, my daughter got the training she needed to understand things like health benefits literature and online health information. But the majority of Americans won’t have that advantage. According to the health literacy component of the 2003 National Assessment of Adult Literacy, only 12 percent of U.S. adults over the age of 16 performed at the highest literacy proficiency level. And among the college educated? Only 24 percent with bachelor’s degrees met that bar.
Engage more patients by improving the readability of what you write.
If the goal of the Affordable Care Act is to engage patients in their own care, we can no longer afford to write at the level we believe literate adults should read at. Everything we write needs to be written at a level the majority of Americans can understand. Today, that seems to be at about the 5th grade reading level or below. Short sentences with few multi-syllable words and simple concepts meet that test.
Cut the complexity when writing for your professional audiences too.
Today you can’t trust that scientists, specialists and corporate executives with advanced degrees will take the time to read lengthy, complex and abstract prose texts—or even understand them. Only 33 percent of them met the proficiency level in the health literacy study. That means that documents such as the Affordable Care Act, with a reading level at grade 13.4, cannot be understood by the majority of those it was written for (even if they had the time to read it all).
Take a lead from print journals like The New York Times to ensure you’re getting your message across to the professionals you want to address. They write to a 6th to 7th grade level. Even better, the New Yorker and Economist shoot for a 5th grade level.
While you may think it will insult a professional’s intelligence, writing to a lower reading level does not mean your writing has to be elementary. Consider the fact that novels by literary greats Ernest Hemingway and Cormack McCarthy have the highest readability scores of any modern fiction. Fourth graders can read “The Old Man and the Sea,” but no one would call it a book just for kids.
How to Ensure Your Writing Gets Read
Writing content that is both simple and interesting takes skill. It’s a constant exercise in paring down and replacing complex words with simpler ones.
Happily there are many great online tools for measuring readability. Most also give you text statistics that help you with editing, such as . Different tools use different measuring scales. Flesch-Kincaid is the most popular. You can get an even clearer look at readability by comparing scores from a few different scales.
Then, use the tools to improve your writing. I knocked this post down a full grade level with the help of one of them.
Readability rating tools I recommend
- Readability-score.com: I like this one for its ease of use. It includes keyword density, which helps for online content.
- Online-utility.org: You can cut and paste your text or a specific URL into this online program. In addition to scores and statistics, it provides suggestions of which sentences you should rewrite to improve readability.
- The Readability Test Tool: This one has indicator bars that give you a visual guide as well as scores from the major scales.
- Microsoft Office Word: When Word finishes checking spelling and grammar, it gives you the option of checking the readability score based on Flesch Reading Ease and Flesch-Kincaid Grade Level. This is a good first look at your content.