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This hidden MS Word tool will help you become a better writer

Show of hands – how many are familiar with Flesch-Kincaid Readability Statistics?

If you’re not using this Microsoft Word tool, then you’re missing an easy way to smooth over the rough edges in your writing. If you already know about these stats, I’ll give some reminders about how they can help make good writing great

Flesch-Kincaid stats show the readability level of a document. MS Word offers two readability tests: Flesch Reading Ease and Flesch-Kincaid Grade Level.

Writing consultant Rudolph Flesch created the Reading Ease formula in the late 1940s. Later, he teamed with John P. Kincaid to develop Grade Level Readability. I won’t discuss the complex formulas behind the scores. For the moment, just know a higher Reading Ease score means the copy is easier to read, and documents at the 8th and 9th grade level represent plain English easily understood by students ages 13-15.

You can set MS Word to provide Flesch-Kincaid stats when using the “Spelling & Grammar” check on a document. Here’s how to set this up in MS Word 2013:

  1. Click the “File” tab, then click “Options”
  2. Click “Proofing”
  3. Under “When correcting spelling and grammar in Word,” select “Check grammar with spelling”
  4. Select “Show readability statistics”

For a general reading audience, aim for a Reading Ease score over 50 and a writing level between grades 7 and 9. The goal isn’t to insult your readers’ intelligence. Rather, you want people pressed for time to absorb the text easily. For reference, studies show Time magazine has a Flesch Reading score of 52, and F. Scott Fitzgerald’s fiction has a reading level just under grade 8.

Here’s a story I wrote for a health plan member newsletter with a Reading Ease score of 66.9 and a Grade Level score of 7.3.

Here are some tips to help improve readability scores:

  • Eliminate all passive sentences.
  • Keep sentences short. The optimal sentence length is 18 words.
  • Keep paragraphs short. The optimal paragraph has three sentences.
  • Avoid complex terms whenever possible.
  • Opt for simple phrases and short words. Write conversationally, as if you’re speaking to one person in plain English.

You might start editing by running a “Spelling & Grammar” check on each paragraph in your document. The Readability Stats will show passive sentences, average words per sentence and sentences per paragraph. After editing, check “Spelling & Grammar” again for the entire document.

Still not at your target grade level? Review your copy with a fine-tooth comb and look for ways to shorten and simplify the prose. Yes, editing is the true grunt work of writing.

In case you’re wondering, this article scores 59.2 and 8.1.

Do you find Flesch-Kincaid stats useful for editing? How do you use the scores to improve your writing? Please share your thoughts in the comment section below.

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