Chances are, if you write content you’ve been asked to write for a specific reading level. And if you haven’t, you probably will. It’s important for freelancers to be able to match the style and tone their clients desire while meeting target reading levels. Read on to discover some tips and useful tools to help you achieve specific reading levels with your writing.
First things first – what do clients mean by reading level?
While there are other scoring systems out there, most of the time clients are referring to the Flesch-Kincaid, or FK, grade level score (which I’ll call the “FK score” to keep things simple). FK score is based on a variety of factors such as number of words, sentence length, complexity of words, and so on. These variables are entered into a formula, and the result is a grade-level score. The FK grade level ties to American school grade levels, and the FK score was initially designed to help educators and parents quickly choose appropriate, grade-level reading material for students. It has since been adopted for use in other areas to ensure content is accessible and audience appropriate.
Clients might also be referring to a Flesch score, which refers to reading ease. This score ranges from zero to 100 with higher scores indicating “easier” reading. The score is generally matched with a grade level. For example, a Flesch score of 30 or lower indicates college-level (or above) reading ease while a score of 100 indicates 5th grade or below.
According to research, content produced for the mainstream, consumer market should be written at about the 8th-grade reading level (FK score 8, Flesch reading ease 65). While it’s not especially difficult to write generally at this level, writing for different types of clients at this grade level can be challenging.
Consider the following:
Let’s say a tech company has hired you to write a short post about their product. They want to be sure the key concept – the product uses artificial intelligence to continuously learn from user behavior to boost click-through rates – is included.
Simple enough, you think.
Then they add that they want you to write it at an 8th-grade reading level.
Still not too difficult, you think. Until you realize their keywords, “artificial intelligence” and “clickthrough rates,” are considered “hard to understand.” This means they’ll likely bump up the FK score by at least two grade levels.
Removing certain words affects the meaning of the product, something they won’t want you to do. For example, “continuously learns” from user behavior is different than “learns” from user behavior. The first implies the machine is always evaluating and making changes while with the second, it’s not clear. It could learn once a day, once a week, or once a month.
Where does that leave you?
To understand how to tackle the project, let’s evaluate the same sentence written and rewritten to try to achieve the 8th-grade target.
Attempt 1: Powered by artificial intelligence, our product continuously learns from user behavior to significantly improve clickthrough rates. (FK score = 18.7)
Evaluation: I know, I know — 18.7. More than ten grade levels higher than our target for what seems like a fairly basic sentence. Here’s what’s triggering the master’s-level results – complexity in structure and language. The sentence is tagged as “long” and the descriptive clause is considered complex. In addition, our keywords are tagged as difficult to understand as is the word “significantly.”
Let’s try again, focusing only on structure…
Attempt 2: Artificial intelligence powers our product. This mean it continuously learns from user behavior to significantly improve clickthrough rates. (FK score = 14.1)
Evaluation: By writing the first sentence as two sentences – in other words, dumping the descriptive clause – we were able to reduce the reading level by four grades. Not bad! But we’re still way above our grade 8 target.
Let’s keep revising focusing on language…
Attempt 3: Artificial intelligence powers our product. This mean it’s always learning from user behavior. The result? Greatly improved clickthrough rates. (FK = 9.2)
Evaluation: Now we’re getting somewhere. And we’ve achieved it by ditching the two words that were causing a bump of five grade levels – “continuously” and “significantly.” We’ve used easier-to-understand synonyms for both of our challenge words. But we’re still not at the target grade level.
Let’s try one more time, thinking about an even better synonym…
Attempt 4: Artificial intelligence powers our product. This mean it’s always learning from user behavior. The result? A big improvement in clickthrough rates. (FK score = 8.4)
Evaluation: We’re in the zone! Using “big improvement” instead of “greatly improved” is what made the difference, here. And we avoided an adverb – bonus points!
Key Takeaways from the Rewrites
Writing for a mainstream, commercial audience when you’re writing B2B content or B2C content about complex topics isn’t always easy. It means paying attention close attention to sentence structure and word choice. Think: shorter sentences, simpler words.
It’s easy to carried away with lowering the reading level. But remember you shouldn’t sacrifice integral terms that influence meaning or keywords to reach the target level. In our example, we can’t get rid of “artificial intelligence” and “clickthrough rates.” The result is a slightly inflated FK score. You might find your client’s product names to be marked as “hard to understand.” Or specific keywords might lead to a boosted FK score.
Instead of a myopic focus on reading level, do you best while sticking to your client’s more pressing needs. If there’s an issue with a keyword or specific words they want included, let your client know. For example, I recently explained to a client that while the general content I produced was at the target grade level, their product names alone generated a two to three grade-level bump. They were okay with this result because the product names were an important aspect of the piece.
Keep in mind that you will rarely evaluate content on a sentence-by-sentence level. You want to consider readability of the entire piece. Looking at the big picture has a significant effect on FK score. For example, in our above scenario we might look at an entire paragraph instead of the lone sentence. Since we’d explain “artificial intelligence” earlier in the content, we’d likely write “AI” everywhere else. Let’s look at how this changes our score.
Attempt 5: Artificial intelligence (AI) is a powerful tool. And AI powers our product. This mean it’s always learning from user behavior. The result? A big improvement in clickthrough rates. (FK = 6.8)
We’re now well into the target range, which will help us out with more complex words down the line. Hurray!
Why did our score change so much?
To understand this, you need to think about math (just a little, I promise!). The longer the overall content, the more words and sentences are being entered into the magic reading-level formula. Imagine if you had to shoot basketballs to get ranked from zero (terrible) to 100 (best player ever). If you only have one attempt to make the shot, it’s less likely you’ll score well. If you have 1000 attempts, you have more chances to improve your rank. And it gets better and better the more attempts you get.
Think of your word count as those attempts. Focus on achieving the target reading level overall for your word count. While sentence checks are helpful, don’t stress too much if you can’t avoid some complexity. Keep in mind the average for the entire piece or key sections.
How do I check the reading level of my content?
There are a variety of ways to evaluate reading level. The most basic is to use the tool you (most likely) already have: Microsoft Word. MS Word offers an FK score through its “Review” tab. You’ll get the FK score, the Flesch reading ease core, and it will tell you the percentage of passive sentences. Not bad for quick checks. Just be sure to select the right settings to turn on these features.
There are also free online tools you can use to get a little more information. For example, this readability test tool evaluates entered text for several readability scores, including FK score and Flesch reading ease. It gives you a narrative summary in addition to numeric values for six reading indices and six text statistics (e.g., number of words, number of complex words, etc.).
But free tools don’t give you specific feedback, such as which words rank as “hard to understand” or which sentences might be too long. If you’re trying to write at a specific level but struggling to meet your goal, you’ll want to see where your weak points are. In that case, think about paying for a more informative tool. Most of these tools are not expensive, and for professional writers the insights are worth the fees.
To help me, I use readable.io. And no, I’m not an affiliate. I’m sharing to help, not earn. At four dollars a month, readable.io is an affordable tool that gives lots of information to help shift your readability score. I found after using it just a few times, I started changing my writing to meet different targets faster. Readable.io provides you with both an overall score from A to F as well as a variety of specific reading-level scores. Pretty cool.
It gives feedback on areas and words that trigger higher reading levels. And it evaluates for tone (e.g., formal vs. conversational), sentiment, text quality (e.g., number of cliches used), a variety of text statistics and facts (e.g., longest sentence, reading time, speaking time). You can even request evaluations for things like keyword density and gender analysis!
The Bottom Line
Writing at lower reading levels isn’t easy. In fact, it can be harder than writing at higher reading levels. It takes attention and practice to reach specific targets while maintaining the style your client demands. If your client hasn’t specified a reading level? It’s still useful to periodically see how your writing scores. Remember: your target should be FK 8 for a general audience. Knowing your trigger points makes it easier to adjust as needed. Good luck!
And just for fun – the paragraph above received an FK score of 6.9 and a Flesch reading ease score of 62.5.