Your goal is to get the reader to consume your entire page; to get to the end of the text, if not to actually read every single word.
How do you do that, and how do you know when you’ve achieved that? Well, the best way to test the readability of your copy is to use the Flesch Reading Ease Score.
Do people read your emails down to the bottom of the page? After you’ve picked your topic, outlined its main points, and decided what you want your reader to take away or do; the writing should be easy, right?
Well, it’s not always that easy. Even if you’re speaking in your natural voice, and you’re sharing the true and meaning-packed morsels of wisdom you were put on this earth to say; even if your headline is riveting and your layout inviting — your JOB is to get your email (or article, blog post, or press release) actually read by human eyes and minds.
As Sonia Simone declares so earnestly, “You have a voice that’s irreplaceable. It can’t be turned into a clever algorithm. It can’t be duplicated and it can’t be churned out for a penny a word.”
With such a message to deliver, your writing must be readable.
If the point of “good copy” is to get your reader’s eyes moving down the page, and even instigate action on the part of your beloved reader, then it pays to know some basic copywriting tips.
When your reader answers your call to action, you’ll know your copy is readable. In that case, there are also probably a lot of other things going on that are working well together – strong graphics, a desirable offer, good credibility – but your writing plays the critical role.
Before testing your writing on your reader, why not test it yourself? Did you know you could even do that?
I’m going to show you how to score the readability of your page, and then how to accomplish your readability goals.
The Flesch Reading Ease Score and the Flesch-Kincaid Reading Grade Level both measure your writing’s readability. Developed to ensure standards in military technical training manuals, the scores can be used to easily gauge the readability of your writing too. You’ll find them within the spelling tool in Microsoft Word.
For more in-depth understanding of your score, you can also copy and paste your text into the space provided on this handy and informative website. It’s actually kind of fun to play around with your sentence structure and word choices on this site. Try it and let me know how it goes.
Now here’s the kicker about reading ease: Did you know that the average person reads and comprehends — and hits the sweet spot of persuasion — at about the 6th and 7th grade reading level?
If you can consistently write copy that falls somewhere around the 60 – 70 score (the reading ability of an average 13 – 15 year old student) then you will reach, satisfy, convince and convert the most people.
Reading comprehension varies based on education level and experience (the lower the Flesch Reading Ease score, the more difficult to understand) but even college grads and other “smart” people respond most readily to writing that is within the 60 – 70 range.
Working Magic Through Words
Are there tricks to this? Is there some magic formula for achieving this score when you write? While the Flesch scores take into account sentence length and word length, here are some practical ways to squeeze the most juice out of your writing, while keeping it clear and simple.
- Use short, punchy words. Don’t neglect the juicy descriptive words; just remember to jab with words that can take the place of long phrases every now and then. Remember, “Brevity is the soul of wit.”
- Use meaty words to interest and engage people. If you are stranded in realms of possibility, or spend too much time in thoughtful rumination — verbal navel gazing — you can lose your reader really fast. Ground yourself in the real world. Think red meat, not pie in the sky. That means…
- Employ action words to sweep the reader along. Stay away from “be” “is” and “are.” These words form passive sentences that bore readers to sleep. Use them only when you absolutely must. Compare the following sentences:
- It was decided that the gymnasium be locked after the institution’s operating hours in an effort to thwart the local vandals’ destruction. (Flesch Reading Ease 38.3; Flesch-Kinkaid Grade Level 12.0)
- To stop the vandalism at the gym, Mr. Brown decided to keep it locked after school. (Flesch Reading Ease 82.2; Flesch-Kinkaid Grade Level 5.7)
- Grab your reader with descriptive verbs and adjectives. “She says.” could be “She squeals.” or “She drones.” Each sentence would contribute about the same to the reading ease score because of structure and word length…but what differences between them!
Take another example: a purple paint color chosen for an office could be either “sickly” or “soothing” — simple descriptions that powerfully alter the reader’s perception and emotion.
- Vary your sentence lengths. Sentence lengths should both sizzle and pop, almost like the rhythm of an exciting tennis match. Long volleys back and forth are satisfying to watch and more leisurely — but can last forever. Rapid rallies at the net add excitement – but they don’t last as long.
You should be able to write in both styles, just as a pro tennis player can play at the net and the baseline with equal efficiency. Go back and forth between short and long sentence lengths to keep your paragraphs balanced and your cadence natural.
- Don’t be afraid to utilize white space. Certain copywriters who write in one-sentence paragraphs create some of the best emails I’ve read. The physical space between each thought works as hard as the actual text to pull the reader along. Of course in this case the writing must be spectacular.
- One of the best methods you can use to find your most powerful voice as a writer — and to keep people reading — is to write without self-editing. Write like a banshee. Force yourself to say it like it is, any way you can, and just the way you want to. Forget about spelling and grammar. Set a timer for only two minutes (if you have to) and write like mad.
Before you go back and cut your writing to the bone, you’ll find kernels of richness in there, as well as a lot of garbage. Don’t leave the chaff for your reader to remove; he won’t. Only after you have thrown it all up on the page (sorry for that graphic description) should you edit yourself.
That’s right, I didn’t forget the editing part. Take all of the above writing techniques into account and then…
The Final Step… Edit Your Work.
Be ruthless. See if you can cut the length in half. That could have (and probably should have) been technique number eight, but editing is a whole new topic, IMHO. Editing’s just as important to getting people to read to the end, but not exactly in the gooey pond of connective content I’m talking about today.
I was talking yesterday with a friend (and one of the smartest women I know), a Wharton MBA and a big mucky-muck at a computer company that rhymes with “Spell.” She told me how she goes through her emails and trades big words for smaller ones, scratches everything that isn’t absolutely crucial to her main point, and then goes back again and cuts the entire email down to a third of the original. She sighed, “It’s so sad…” and I countered, “It’s wonderful; that’s good writing.”
While practice is the best way to improve your writing, you can sharpen your writing style with these tips. As your copy grows stronger, your Flesch Ease Score will reveal how readers will receive it.
If I’ve missed any tips for making your copy more readable, why not let me know in the comments below. Thanks, and if you’d like more writing tips in an easy video format, login and get these 21 quick and easy videos. Click here for access.
*This post has been updated from an earlier post dated Jan.12, 2012.