Beyond spell check: The readability tools you didn’t know you need

You can write it, but can they read it_

You wouldn’t think of writing your manuscript without spell check, right? Well, we suggest that there is another tool that is equally essential to your work.

See, we have some bad news for you. Your manuscript can be the most meticulously edited, grammatically-glorious work ever written and it can still have “low readability,” meaning that your content is difficult to understand. Yikes. No one wants that.

There’s an app for that

But don’t panic! Like most things in life, there’s an app for that.

First, it’s important to realize that the average reading level is probably lower than you imagine. In fact, in the U.S., the average person reads on a 7th to 8th-grade level. While that might be discouraging, it is still a reality. And this reality means that readability matters if you want your audience to truly grasp your content.

Don’t make your audience feel stupid.

– Drew Westen, psychology professor, Emory University

How to find your readability score

We can hear you asking, but isn’t readability subjective? Thankfully, no. There are digital tools that will evaluate your writing and tell you what grade level you are writing on. The most commonly-used tool is the Flesch-Kincaid method, which focuses on the length of words, sentences, and paragraphs to determine the grade level of a piece of writing. You simply need to run your writing through one of the following tools to find out your readability “score.”

Microsoft Word users:  

  • Follow these steps to use Word’s embedded feature and obtain your score.
  • Use an editing tool like Grammarly that checks your readability as you go.

Google Docs or other wordprocessing software:

Now that you have your score, you can decide if changes need to be made.

In her book Everybody Writes, Ann Handley summarizes the results this way:

“A score of 90-100 means that your writing is easily understood by an average 11-year old.

A score of 60-70 means that your writing is easily understood by teens ages 13-15.

A score of 0-30 means that you writing is best understood by college graduates.

[Dr. Rudolph] Flesch recommended that the score of an average, nontechnical piece aimed at consumers be a minimum of 80 (or approximately 15 words per sentence and between 1 and 1.5 syllables per word).

Here are some examples of average scores for various types of content using the Flesh-Kincaid scale:

  • Comics: 92
  • Consumer ads: 82
  • Reader’s Digest: 65
  • Time magazine: 52
  • Harvard Business Review: 43
  • Standard insurance policy: 10

What to do next

What if your writing scores as unreadable? Do you have to start over? Scrap it all together? Absolutely not. Handley suggests these simple steps to improve your score:

  • Break up long sentences.
  • Cut out complex words.
  • Simplify
  • Consider how your more sophisticated concepts can be broken down into everyday language. Reading other authors on your topic can be very helpful here.
  • Avoid using passive voice. For example, say: The wedding guests felt joy spread through the small chapel Don’t say: Joy was felt by the wedding guests in the small chapel.

Bad vs. Good

The following two paragraphs say the same thing. However, their readability scores are quite different. See if you can spot how the unreadable copy was improved.

Example 1:

Becoming proficient as a choreographer requires a diligent study of technique, musicality, and the history of choreography. Simply being the prima ballerina of your local company does not endow you with an innate affinity for composing movement, and those that make this assumption are doomed to present a production unworthy of the art itself.

This copy generated a Flesch-Kincaid score of 25.18, which is equivalent to the reading level of a postgraduate. Not good.

Example 2:

Great choreographers do much more than put moves to music. First, they become expert dancers themselves. Next, they study music. Then they learn about the great choreographers of the past. You are likely an expert dancer. But more is needed to be an expert choreographer. Don’t skip past the learning phase. Take time to study the craft so that you can produce the best piece possible.

In contrast, this copy generated a score of 70.28, meaning it is readable to most American readers. They both say the same thing, but the second example means that the reader understands the content. And isn’t that the point after all?

At Certa Publishing, we always try to provide our writers with the tools they need to create outstanding content. Whether you need help with readability, marketing or the entire publishing process, we would love to hear from you today.

 

 

 

 

 

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3 Steps to Better Sentences

You know your writing needs to improve, but you’re not sure where to start. Enroll in a pricey writing course? Check out every writing book in the library? Consume all the writing blogs you can find? It may not be as complicated as you think.

Stefanie Flaxman, writer for Copyblogger, suggests a simple editing technique in her post 3 Advanced Ways to Craft Better Sentences, which we have excerpted here:

While the goal of “improving your content writing” may seem complex, it’s not necessarily more complicated than improving each sentence you write.

Better sentences add up to better content.

So, let’s break down content writing into sentence writing.

I’m not about to show you how to write a “perfect” sentence. Instead, these three tips will help you remember that every sentence you write is an opportunity to practice.

And during your writing practice, you can implement smart changes that keep your reader focused on your message.

1. No sentence is an island

Even if you’re examining just one individual sentence, it’s helpful to review the sentences that surround it.

There are two main reasons why:

  1. You may have overused a word. Sometimes you’ll intentionally repeat a word for emphasis or because it fits the rhythm of your writing. But we often overuse words without meaning to. When you review your writing, vary your word choice to create a more stimulating reading experience.
  2. You may have belabored a point. Give each sentence you write a specific purpose. If you communicate the exact same idea in two different sentences, it’s probably wise to delete one.

When you look at the broader context of your writing while aiming to improve one sentence, you kick off a sort of domino effect. Noticing one weakness helps you correct other weaker sections.

2. Writing skin needs exfoliation

The most “advanced” skill you can learn is to examine your own writing with a critical eye.

A critical eye doesn’t mean you’re so hard on yourself that you get discouraged. It just lets you swiftly identify areas of your sentences that either hinder comprehension or lack the details that magnetically hold attention.

I like the comparison to skin exfoliation because rough drafts, like dry skin, are … rough.

For example, you’re probably already familiar with the benefits of using active verbs instead of passive verbs.

Changing a sentence from “Joplin was devastated by the twister” to “The twister devastated Joplin” exfoliates the sentence to make it smoother.

Removing extra words is another form of exfoliation.

Here’s an example from my recent article on finding more loyal readers. I’ve bolded the extra words in the draft of this paragraph.

Edith likes Frank’s article idea, but she needs to consult with him andeducate him on the type of content that is the right fit for Cosmopolitan. She’ll give him their writer guidelines so he can use them to match the tone and style of his article to the publication’s specifications.

Here’s the published version of that paragraph.

Edith likes Frank’s article idea, but she needs to educate him on the type of content that is the right fit for Cosmopolitan. She’ll give him their writer guidelines so he can match the tone and style of his article to the publication’s specifications.

To give you one more example, in the draft of this article I wrote, “Here’s the final version of the paragraph that we published.” As you can see above, that sentence turned into, “Here’s the published version of that paragraph.”

Developing an eye for excess will sharpen your writing.

3. “You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.”

When I edit, I always have a browser tab with a Google search bar open.

Why?

Because I’m constantly looking up the meanings of words or idioms that I don’t consider straightforward — anything that sticks out and makes me question whether or not it is correct.

Even if I’m 95 percent certain, it’s always beneficial to verify that it’s the most appropriate word or phrase.

My Google search browser tab is also helpful for double-checking the spellings of proper names, places, products, and companies.

The bottom line here is valuing professional editorial standards that help guarantee accuracy. Take the time to ensure your readers effortlessly understand your content and aren’t distracted by a misspelling, or the incorrect use of a word or idiom.

At Certa Publishing, we are passionate about the editing process. How can we help you?

The Potter’s Tools: The Divine Work of Writing

04.29.17 potter copy

Imagine a half-finished sculpture on the artist’s table. Strewn about are various chisels, brushes and tools. Chunks of clay lie discarded on the floor. The master leans intently over the object, pressing it here and there with his hands, refining… cutting… scraping. Yet look at the delight in his eyes. Look at how his fingers dance to an unheard song, molding and shaping, with a sense of what will be.

We are the clay, you are the potter; we are all the work of your hand.  Isaiah 64:8

You see, the Lord did not lay down His creative skills on the sixth day. He is still at work, forming and fashioning us into new creations. For we are God’s handiwork, created in Christ Jesus to do good works (Ephesians 2:10).  You can be confident that he who began a good work in you will carry it on to completion until the day of Christ Jesus (Philippians 1:6).

Have you considered that the Lord may be using your role as a writer as one of his potter’s “tools?” But this work is uncomfortable. If you’ve been writing long enough, you’ve surely experienced the sting of rejection. Perhaps an editor has returned your work with more red ink than you thought possible. Maybe your manuscript has not been received with the praise you expected, or has even been panned or criticized by your friends, family or the public.

Scrape. Push. Cut. Do you feel the potter’s tools?

As believers, we have a choice in our response to the pain of His reshaping. Resist or submit. And James reminds that He responds accordingly. God opposes the proud but shows favor to the humble (James 4:6).

What if we viewed writing as a new opportunity to submit to the potter’s work? Could we receive the editor’s remarks as a chance to grow and stretch? Can we hold our words with an open hand, allowing the Lord to refine them and infuse them with His voice? When we feel ready to quit, can we ask Him to help us run with endurance the race that is set before us (Hebrews 12:1)? What if we approached our mentors with a humble heart, asking for their constructive criticism, and appreciating their input?

Jeff Goins, bestselling author and blogger, suggests,

A good writer is humble. Regardless of skill, she is committed to seeing the writing process through to completion. No matter how grueling or hard, she will write. And she will get better…

This all begins with humility. Which really means a willingness to listen and change. To do the work and become a professional.

If you do this, if you take the time to make your work great by never settling for good enough, it will make all the difference. So start persevering today.

Let’s view our writing as more than work, more than a pastime, but as a divine process, a tool in the hand of the Master. Is there really any better place to be than on the table of the Potter?

How to Ignore Your Inner Editor…for now

innereditor

It can happen at any time and while working on any piece. Your writing session is going smoothly when suddenly a thought hits you out of nowhere: “That’s the worst phrase/sentence/chapter ever!” This voice in your head leaves you feeling self-conscious and paralyzed…

Don’t be discouraged! This internal message doesn’t have to plunge you head first into writer’s block. Recognize the voice and its message for what it truly is—your inner editor repeating old insecurities and expectations that need to be drowned out.

All writers have heard this foreboding voice and cringed at its pointed words (or at least felt the effects of its criticism). You might stop mid-type and stare at a blank screen. Maybe you begin pacing aimlessly around the room. No matter how helpless you feel, though, only you can break through the block to quiet your inner editor.

But how?

Start by typing “fix” every time your inner editor starts to speak. Brush past your critical thoughts by vowing to revisit the passage at another time. Why is “fix” so helpful? It reminds you that this is only the first draft and no words are permanent. It is a marker of which sections to return to. It helps you acknowledge that you’re aware of the possible imperfection of your passage, giving yourself permission to move on without accepting it as a final draft.

Somehow, writing “fix” after whatever words are bothering your inner editor allows your words to flow again with renewed creativity. Once you’ve moved on to the next part of your writing, you’ll often discover new words and phrases popping into your head that are perfect for “fixing” your prior issue.

So next time you hear the condemnation in your inner editor’s voice, reply with a simple “fix” and move along. Trust yourself to move forward in your piece and return to the problem areas when it’s time!