Do you worry that your writing will lack style or sound childish when you make it easy to read? After all, the majority of surfers scan content, so they’re looking for ideas and information they can consume like fast food and then, move on.
If you use the amazing Yoast SEO plugin for WordPress, you no doubt know the standard reading levels it rates your posts on to give you the green checkmark on readability.
- Reading level between Grade 6 and 9
- Readability level of 60 or higher
Not familiar with the SEO plugin — you should be! Click here for information on the free and paid versions.
The good news is that you can have a great writing style and still meet those parameters. It just takes practice.
The KISS Rule
We’re all familiar with the KISS rule — Keep it simple, silly.
In Web writing that means we strive for:
- Shorter sentences
- Words with fewer syllables
- Simple sentences (rather than complex or compound/complex)
Hold on, though. If you’re thinking Dick and Jane primers for first and second grade readers that’s not quite what I mean. Just because sentences are generally shorter doesn’t mean you can’t use long, complex sentences to create variety and rhythm in your writing. It just means you shouldn’t have five 30 or 40 word sentences in a row. Dickens was great to read in school, but his words were meant to be consumed slowly and savored, not scanned and skipped over.
Shorter sentences may seem like a pretty standard guideline, but what exactly is a short sentence? How many words does it have?
Moby Dick [Hermann Melville] has an average of 21.32 words per sentence, while Leaves of Grass [Walt Whitman] averages 31.2 words per sentence. Twilight [Stephanie Meyer] averages just 9.629 and Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone [J.K. Rowling] is a little higher at 11.767. So, these two recent bestsellers have an average sentence length of half of Moby Dick’s and a third of Leaves of Grass. That’s a lot!
But judging by the number of copies of Twilight [over 100 million] and Harry Potter [all titles collectively at 500 million] that have sold, the writing styles appealed to readers.
Obviously, shorter sentences shouldn’t lead to writing that isn’t read.
Examples of Short Sentences that Say a Lot
And if you’re not sure that short sentences can pack in a lot of style, here are some literary examples.
“Often at night, there is lightening, but it quivers all alone.” (Grade 7 reading level from Tuck Everlasting)
“A tiny spider crawled from the sac. It was no bigger than a grain of sand, no bigger than the head of a pin.” (Grade 2 reading level from Charlotte’s Web)
Example of Paragraphs Using Sentence Variety
Combining short sentences with longer, more complicated sentences accomplishes a number of things.
- Keeps overall reading level lower
- Makes content easier to understand overall
- Creates sentence variety for a more interesting read
- Creates a more distinctive writing style
Here’s an example with a Grade 5.5 reading level using Flesch-Kincaid (Grade 8 average over 5 different scales using Readable.io.
We see signs everywhere–small, tasteful signs. Enormous billboard signs. Signs that direct. Signs that advertise. Signs that inform.
While we may think of signs as a modern invention, they’re definitely not! Way back in 1393, King Richard II, of England, passed a law requiring pubs and taverns to post signs identifying the type of ale they served for the ale tasters’ information. Medieval shopkeepers, like modern ones, soon discovered the signs had other benefits and started a long tradition of creative signage.
How Do You Know the Grade Level and Readability Level of Your Sentences?
The best way to learn how to write to a particular grade and readability level is to practice. To do that, you must be able to write a section of text and see how it rated, then revise and check it again.
How do you do that? Well, your options range from a word processor with that feature, such as Microsoft Word, to free online tools.
Here’s the MS Office link to show you how to turn on readability from Word 2007 through 2016.
I personally learned how to write to a specific level using Word. There are lots of videos on YouTube that will help you, but here’s one to get you started.
Free Tools to Check Readability and Grade Level
If you don’t have MS Word, you can use a number of different free tools to check readability levels and grade levels. Here are some of them:
- Hemingway Editor – http://www.hemingwayapp.com/ – Just click on Write in the top right corner, then highlight and erase all of the text in the middle of the page in the text box. Paste your own text in the box or write some practice paragraphs. When you’re ready to check your statistics, click on Edit in the top right corner.
- Check the readability of published webpages by entering a URL to test in either of these free tools (Note *** some only give you a few free checks daily):
- Readable.io – https://readable.io/text/
- Juicy Studio – http://juicystudio.com/services/readability.php#readintro
- Readability Test Tool – https://www.webpagefx.com/tools/read-able/