Professional development and training blog of the Public Relations Society of America (PRSA)
August 22, 2011

Can You Read Me Now? How to Make Your Copy More Accessible

Making your messages easy to read is the No. 1 way to increase readership.

According to “Impact,” a 1999 study by the Readership Institute, when your copy is more “relaxing to read” — when it helps people “to find what I’m looking for” — readers will:

  • Spend more time reading it
  • Read it more completely
  • Read it more often

One of the fastest ways to make your message easy to read is to run readability formulas on your copy.

Measure your copy
Since 1847, scholars have been measuring how difficult copy is to read. During the years, these folks have created about 200 indexes — such as the Spache Readability Formula and the SMOG Readability Formula.

All of these indexes boil readability down to a mathematical formula. Those formulas usually comprise two factors:

1. Sentence length. This measures “syntactic,” or structural, difficulty. Most formulas measure the average number of words per sentence.

2. Word length. This measures “semantics,” or meaning, difficulty. Most formulas measure the average number of syllables or characters per word.

One way to measure your copy’s readability is to use STORYtoolz statistics. Just enter your message on its website, and STORYtoolz will run it through seven popular indexes. You’ll learn all kinds of fascinating details about your piece, from the number of characters you use in each word to how often you use the passive voice.

You’ll also get an average reading grade level. It tells you how many years of education your reader would need to fully understand your copy.

Help your audience
What grade level should you aim for?

If you’re writing for a broad audience, then you might consider starting with eighth grade on the Flesch-Kincaid test. Ratchet up or down from there depending on your audience members’ sophistication.

Why so low?

More than four out of 10 Americans studied in the U.S. Department of Education’s 2003 National Assessment of Adult Literacy had basic or below-basic prose skills. That means that they could sign forms and look up shows in TV listings, but they had trouble finding locations on maps and comparing viewpoints in two editorials.

Worried about talking down to your audience? Don’t be. Most audience members are tired, busy and overwhelmed with information. They’ll be happy to peruse your copy in a more digestible package.

Keep in mind that the front page of The Wall Street Journal is written at the ninth-grade level. This piece, which I wrote for a highly literate audience — you! — weighs in at the seventh month of the seventh-grade level, according to Flesch-Kincaid.

How much harder would you like it to be?

If you want to make your copy more readable, then just shorten the length of your sentences and words. Your audience will be glad that you did.

This Writing with Wylie originally appeared in the August 2011 issue of Public Relations Tactics

Ann Wylie, president of Wylie Communications, works with communicators who want to reach more readers and with organizations that want to get the word out. For PRSA, she presents programs like “Writing That Sells — Products, Services and Ideas” in on-site sessions across the country.

Want tips for making your posts, tweets and status updates more interesting, relevant and accessible to readers? Join Ann Wylie at the PRSA 2011 International Conference preconference session, “Writing for Social Media.”

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