Difficult doesn’t mean you have an audience full of village idiots; it simply recognizes that in most cases reading online text is different from reading print. Online we tend to scan more, so shorter words and sentences become even more important.” –Ann Handley Everybody Writes
Maybe I watch too many zombie, post-apocalyptic-type shows, but the first time I saw “Flesch-Kincaid” in a book (Ann Handley’s Everybody Writes to be exact) I thought it said “Flesh”. Which naturally is a slippery slope to human-devouring monsters and visions of apocalyptic Georgia.
But of course, this is not what it said and once I had adjusted the horror filter in my brain, realized the Flesch-Kincaid method is an interesting tool for writers.
Let’s start with the basics: the Flesch-Kincaid method is a readability scoring method developed by Rudolf Flesch and J. Peter Kincaid in 1975. Flesch, an Austrian immigrant, was a HUGE proponent of using plain English (i.e., colloquial and informal words). And advocated for use of less technical language in highly regulated industries such as the Federal Trade Commission.
The Flesch-Kincaid method scores text on a scale of 0-100 with higher scores indicating a piece is easier to understand. Here’s a more exact breakdown:
- 0-30 best understood by university graduate students
- 60-70 understood by 13-15 year olds
- 90-100 understood by the average 11-year-old
Side note—want to learn how to apply the Flesch-Kincaid method on your writing? Check out the guide for Microsoft Word users here.
Flesch advised that his scoring model accounts for how the human mind reads. With specific emphasis on successive points. Which in plain English, means that our brains make an indefinite verdict about a set of text up to a natural breaking point (punctuation, white space, new paragraph, etc.) and then pause at this point to make a final judgement. So the shorter the sentence or word, the easier to transition from indefinite verdict to final judgement.
At this point, you may be wondering what score you want your text to get. And like most things in life, it depends. It depends on your audience and medium. Writing for middle schoolers? Try getting close to 100. Writing a white paper? You can get by with something closer to 30.
Notice in that last sentence I said, you can get by. That’s because while your audience will most likely still comprehend the text, is it in your best interest to write overly complex material? Probably not. In general, the simpler and shorter your text the better the comprehension and retention rate. And what we all need as writers is writing that keeps readers reading.
Which is exactly where the Flesch-Kincaid method comes in. Using the scoring method as a general guide, you can see where your piece rates in readability. Rating pretty low on the scale? Try breaking up long sentences or using a thesaurus to swap out complex words. Use subheadings, lists, photos, and TONS of white space to make sentences easier to digest.
While there’s no substitute for editing your own writing and knowing your audience, the Flesch-Kincaid scale can be a good way to gauge if you’re going in the right direction. Because if there’s anything truly terrifying, it’s a sentence that’s difficult to read.
P.s., I’m thinking of writing a complementary post about how to use the Flesch-Kincaid method on other word processing systems. Is that something you would find helpful? Comment below or drop me a line! I’d love to hear from you!