07/08/20

Why brand design agencies need to pay attention to readability grades

written by Matt Brady
Why brand design agencies need to pay attention to readability grades

It might sound like you’re back at school. Sorry about that. But stopping to check up on the readability grade of whatever you’re writing right now isn’t a bad idea. Even when you’re working with the biggest of ‘big picture’ ideas as a brand design agency.

It’s a quick way to check if your writing’s rambling on a bit too much – and if it’s going to be understood by the majority of people who read it. That’s particularly important when you’re writing consumer-facing content.

What are readability grades? Where did they come from?

They’re a way of measuring how easy a piece of writing is to read.

There are quite a few different systems. Some check sentence length and word length, while others hold your writing up against a list of ‘common’ words to see how out-of-the-ordinary your vocabulary is.

The obvious problem with the second type is that when you’re writing specialist content, you’ll almost always end up with a result that’s not very useful, given the audience you’re writing for.

Systems that measure word and sentence lengths, like the Automated Readability Index (ARI) and the Flesch-Kincaid readability grade system, tend to be more useful on the whole. And I prefer them because they produce more consistent results when comparing like with like (or as close to like-for-like as writing ever gets).

The grades map out to US school grades. A grade six is the equivalent of the expected reading age of an 11-or 12-year-old. The lower the reading grade, the easier your writing is to read (in theory).

Picture of empty school chairs.

The Automated Readability Index

There are two reasons why I reckon ARI is the most useful grading system.

Speaking from experience, it seems to give results that are more or less in line with what I expect, as someone who checks up on this a fair bit. And it’s built into the brilliant Hemingway App, a helpful and free online tool.

The app also does a pass for stuff like adverbs, complex words to be swapped out, passive voice, and weak conditional phrasing. There’s a place for everything from time to time, but the more of these you can avoid, the better.

But take everything it says with a pinch of salt. Keeping customers informed should always outweigh writing to keep an app happy.

Be seen (it’s great for SEO)

Search engines used to love ticks in boxes.

Keyword density? Tick. Minimum length? Tick. And so on. You wrote for the robot – and you were rewarded. That hasn’t been entirely true for quite a while, though.

What search engines look for now aren’t pieces where someone has checked off everything on a to-do list, but pieces where the writer has made sure that humans – not crawlers and bots – come first. Readability grades and great design are the best way to make sure you’re presenting everything well for both.

Copywriters in a creative design agency might sometimes want to add extra flourishes. And to be fair, a 60-word sentence from a talented writer can still scan beautifully and make perfect sense.

But Google won’t always agree, and that matters a lot in a digital context.

Likewise, breaking up big chunks of writing into manageable paragraphs makes a lot of difference too.

In short: Think about your reader first, message second, and your own stylistic preferences last.

Not a perfect metric for any brand design agency – but useful!

To be absolutely honest, holding every piece of writing to the same grade standard doesn’t really work out.

Say I’m writing a piece titled ‘How to mow a lawn’. I could easily hit a 3 or 4 on the ARI scale, because the subject is simple. And I don’t need to use technical language.

Now say I’m writing about investment, or a medical field like endocrinology. While it’s definitely best practice to keep things as simple as possible for an audience less familiar with the subject, there are words – like glucocorticoids (curious?) – which can’t be shortened.

Scatter a few of these around your writing and the grade shoots up. With that in mind, a technical piece of writing could hit a 9 or 10 on the scale from time to time. And that’s often fine.

Add in a dollop of creativity (after all, that’s what we do as a brand design agency) and the grade can go up or down pretty quickly. And sometimes, a clearly constructed long sentence is better than several short sentences where the message becomes fragmented and difficult to follow. Sensible use of commas and dashes helps keep sentences flowing, too.

So, while readability grades are handy, they aren’t the be-all and end-all. Good writing is. Keep that in mind.

How did I get on?

It wouldn’t be fair to write this piece without holding it up to the mirror.

Hemingway says I’m writing at a grade six level right now, which is what you might expect an eleven- or twelve-year-old to be able to read. That’s pretty low, and I’ve managed to cram some long words and complex sentences in here – just to demonstrate that with some thought, you can get away with a fair bit (and at 43 words, this very long sentence helps me proves it).

Plus, Hemingway got me to knock out some unintended passive voice to boot.

Give it a go, and see how you can really tighten things up. Even if you’re the most experienced writer in the world, with a long history of working at massive brand design agencies, I bet you’ll still find it helpful.

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