How to use Readability Scores

 

Readability score resultsIf you need to make sure your writing is clear, the website Readability Score can help.

I’m not connected or affiliated to this website or its creator in any way, I just find it very useful, and wanted to share it with you.

Much of my working life involves writing, so to all intents and purposes I am a professional writer.

I want to show you why I find this site useful, and give you some recommendations on how to use it.

What is a readability score? What is a readability index?

The concept of a readability score (also known as a readability index) goes back many years, really hitting its stride in 1975, when Rudolf Flesch and J. Peter Kincaid built their Flesch–Kincaid readability tests for the US Navy.

The idea is that by looking at your writing, and making some calculations, we can figure out roughly how easy it is for somebody to understand what you’ve written.

It’s an automated calculation, so of course it’s not perfect, but it’s a very useful guide. The most common measures that these scores look at is sentence length, word length, number of syllables in your words, and the number of characters (letters) that you use.

Sometimes it’s difficult for a computer to count syllables accurately, so the measures are sometimes not 100% precise, but from a practical point of view that doesn’t matter.

There are two basic types of measures. The first is just a score, which doesn’t mean much by itself, but can be used to compare one piece of writing to another.

The second measure, which Flesch and Kincaid developed, and several others have followed, is more useful to us. It shows the average American school reading grade needed to understand your writing.

What are the most popular readability scores?

There are several readability tests that ultimately boil down to a US reading grade. This means that we can run several tests, compare them, and take the average.

Here are the big guns of the readability index world. They all work in different ways, and the links below take you to Wikipedia articles so you can find out more. They produce results of a US reading grade that are usually no more than two or three grades apart.

(Readability Score gives you these links when you see your results, which is nice.)

How does readability-score.com work?

This website was built and maintained by Dave Child, who’s based in the UK. I don’t know him personally, but he’s very friendly and responsive to email, if you have feature requests, etc.

The site is nice and easy to use, and looks good. You can either paste some text directly into the site (which is what I do), or upload files, or point the site to a URL web link that contains your text. The site can even monitor your links, such as your homepage, and alert you when certain readability thresholds are breached.

The results are very clear and easy to see, and I’m sure you’ll find it very useful.

You get to see the various reading grade levels for your writing, and an average.

You also get keyword density, ie how often certain words or two-word phrases appear. Personally I don’t need this, but if you write with SEO in mind it can be helpful.

Word count, sentence count, and average words per sentence are useful. I’ll give you some recommendations below for how you could use this.

The longest sentence is a crucial metric, and one that I asked the site author to add for me. (Impressively he added it within a day!) You also get the longest word, which can be helpful too.

If you are more than a casual user, there are very reasonably-priced subscription options, which help support the site.

A note on security and privacy: With sites like this, we always have to think about security and privacy. I’ve no idea whether this site (or any other similar site) stores your text, or does anything else with it. It probably doesn’t, but of course it could. (They do have a Privacy Policy.) So as always on the internet, it’s always best to assume the worst case scenario: don’t go pasting highly confidential documents into any kind of site like this, just to be safe!

How to use readability scores in your writing

Even highly intelligent and/or educated people (not always the same thing!) find it easier to read and comprehend writing that is at a lower reading grade. So no matter who you are writing for, whether it’s doctors and lawyers, manual workers, or the fabled “high-school dropouts”, a lower score is usually better.

The excellent book “Write everything right”, by Denny Hatch, (a long-time marketing man), is well worth a read. (Amazon UK  Amazon US)

It contains these facts from the Literacy Project Foundation, relating to American readers:

 50% of adults cannot read a book written at an 8th grade level

45 million are functionally illiterate and read below a 5th grade level

In other words, the average reading grade in America is 8th grade level. I have no particular reason to doubt that the UK is very similar.

The advice of Denny Hatch, which I agree with, is:

  • Keep sentences to 29 words or fewer
  • Write at 8th grade level or even lower if you can

Conclusion: an essential site for all writers

Here’s a screenshot showing the readability scores for this very article you’re reading now. (Click the image to see a larger version.) What do you reckon? Must try harder!

Readability score screenshot

“The Dirty Dozen” Marketing Processes that every internet start-up must master

What I learned from running an internet startup.

Over a year ago, I wrote an article on the blog of my company Publisha, saying that I’d come round to thinking that there are 12 core marketing processes that most internet startups have to focus on.

My original article has had around 20,000 views, and I’ve received a lot of feedback on it. I thought it was time to update my thinking.

The marketing processes

Almost every startup needs to get these things right:

1. Drive targeted traffic to homepage
Aim: Get the right potential customers onto the homepage.

2. Signup
Aim: Get them to sign up for a free account.

3. Induction immediately after signup
Aim: Get the user to set up their account ready to actually use it.

4. Activation: keep them going
Aim: Ensure user is still using the site 30 days later.

5. Push them to Pay
Aim: Encourage payment within 30 days through roadblocks and desirable features.

6. Payment
Aim: A smooth payment process with minimal dropout.

7. Retention
Aim: Ensure user accounts remain active.

8. Referrals
Aim: Get users to refer other potential customers to us.

9. Testimonials
Aim: Get users to tell us why we’re great, in a form we can use in our marketing.

10. Upgrades
Aim: Get users onto higher-paying accounts and deliver more value.

11. Re-activation
Aim: if a publisher stops using their account, we get them going again

12. Build your email list
Aim: Get a list of users that are active, engaged, that you can contact regularly to keep your momentum going.

BONUS PROCESS 13. Continual Improvement
Aim: Continually measure and optimise all the marketing processes.
This is vital: it ties all the other processes together.

Why your start-up needs to think in terms of processes

If you’re looking for coherent direction, improvements in your business every day, and a feeling that you’re not floundering but executing a plan, you need processes. In short, they can shortcut your route to the top.

In my startup, I find that my biggest problem is a lack of time, and that holds us back more than anything else. If you find that you are limited by lack of available time then processes will help you immensely. Setting up a process probably takes about ten minutes extra effort, but the benefits soon stack up. If you’re measuring your effectiveness you can start doing more of the good stuff, and stop doing the pointless stuff that’s currently sucking up your time. Better time management alone makes processes worthwhile.

If you’ve ever worked in a big company you have two things: my profound sympathy, and probably some experience of processes. There’s an old saying, “Education is wasted on the young”, the thinking being that you don’t appreciate it until it’s too late. Well, that’s exactly what I think about processes as they apply to start-ups. They say there’s a lot that big companies can learn from start-ups. Well, here’s something start-ups can learn from the big boys.

All that start-up stuff about “We’re nimble” can often be code for “We don’t really know what we’re doing, so we just flit around from thing to thing without a coherent plan and a solid direction pushing us forward”. So the momentum never gets going. I think processes are a great way to give that momentum.

Bigger companies formalise this into talk of “Quality Management Systems” and accreditations like ISO:9001, but you don’t need to get that heavy with it to get the benefit.

Another benefit: as you get bigger and take on more staff, you can already say “This is how we do things round here”, and hand off an optimized process to them, rather than vague notions of what to try.

How it works in practice

It’s not rocket science. It’s not even new – hurray, that means it’s tried and tested!

The idea comes from an American called W Edwards Deming who’s been dead for nearly 20 years, and he was 93 when he croaked! He invented it in America, everyone there told him he was crazy, so he went to Japan, showed it to them, and they used it to thrash the Americans by making things better and cheaper.

If you want to get all funky and MBA about it, it’s called the Deming Cycle, or Plan Do Check Act (PDCA), which you can check out on Wikipedia, but you can go with a light version of it to make sure it doesn’t take up too much time.

Here’s what you do:

Plan: What are you going to do to get the results you want?
Do: Go and do it!
Check: How did you do? This is where your metrics come in.
Act: What are you going to change in the process to improve it for next time?

So for each of the first 11 processes I’ve listed above, this is what we do. Process number 12 is really this Plan-Do-Check-Act cycle, where you break out the metrics, the Google Analytics, and all that good stuff.

An example process

Not to go into too much detail, but to take Process 1 as an example, here’s the basic sorts of things I cover in the plan for my own business. No great surprises here:

1. Drive targeted traffic to homepage

Search Engine Optimisation
Search Engine Pay-Per-Click
Facebook Advertising
Joining in on Discussion Forums
Blogging
Commenting on Articles on other blogs
Twitter
Affiliates
PR and press coverage
Each of these items then breaks down into further detail on what we’re going to do. So for the item on commenting on articles on other blogs, we have lists of the blogs that we comment on.

We then have regular review meetings of the processes where we discuss results and decide how to change our processes. Over time, we think this will let us get better and better at what we do.

Why not try it and see how it works for you?

Ten ways to improve your technical blog writing

Simple things you can do to quickly and dramatically improve the quality of your technical blog writing.

Recently, several of my technical friends have spoken to me about their blogs, saying that they lack confidence in their writing style. They asked me for advice on how to improve their technical blog writing, so as the editor of ViewsHound, and a software developer myself, here’s my top tips for technical blog writing:

1. APT: Audience, Purpose, Tone

I learned “Audience, Purpose, Tone” during my A-levels, and it was probably the most important thing I learned in the whole two years! I recommend this tip to everyone who I help with their writing, and it never fails to improve their work. Just spend a minute thinking of this before you write. It’s very simple:

  • Audience: Who are you writing for? What knowledge and skills do they have?
  • Purpose: Why are you writing? To inform, entertain, persuade?
  • Tone: What attitude will you take? Friendly, harsh, formal, relaxed?

There’s not much to say about tone, but let’s look at audience and purpose in more depth.

2. Audience: Don’t fall between two stools

One of the most common failings I see with technical articles is that the author has no idea of who his reader will be, so the article swings wildly between being too basic and being too advanced. As a result, the article is no use to anyone. So decide right at the start whether you are writing for novices or for advanced readers, and stick to it. You can explain a few terms as you go, to broaden the appeal of the article, but decide how much knowledge your reader is likely to have *before* you start writing.

3. Purpose: What is the benefit to the reader of your post?

Another common mistake in technical blog posts is to forget why you are actually writing! You always want the reader to come away from your article with something: knowledge, an opinion, an emotion, a better impression of you, etc. So before you start to write, figure out what you want your reader to do at the end of the article. It’s not complicated: in the case of this article, all I want is for you to come away being able to write better blog posts (and, as a result, increase the traffic to your blog).

4. Write your headline and summary first, but check at the end

Writing your headline and summary first will give you clarity, give you a focus for your article, and will help to keep you on track. (Some blogs don’t have a summary, but articles like this one do.) After you finish writing the article, go back and make sure you didn’t drift, and then either reword the article or change the headline/summary to make sure you’re still consistent.

Good headlines are hard to write—I toyed with about ten before I settled on the one I used here, and it’s still not perfect. However, in these days of Reddit, Hacker News and other aggregators, you often *only* have the headline to make someone decide whether to read your article or not, so it’s worth spending the time on a good headline.

5. Plan before you write

If you set off into the unknown without a map (or, let’s face it, without your phone!) you’re going to get lost. That’s exactly what happens to a lot of bloggers. The post meanders, never really goes anywhere, and most people will stop reading. The solution is to make a plan.

Some people find it hard to believe, but good planning doesn’t *cost* time, it actually *saves* time. All I did to plan this article was to grab a sheet of paper and a pencil and jot down the subheadings for the things I wanted to say. (I prefer planning on paper, where I can quickly scribble, cross out, draw arrows, etc, but it doesn’t matter how you do it.)

6. Use a story

When children are small, they all have stories read to them. As adults, many of us read fiction and watch films. The desire for stories and narrative seems to be hard-wired into us. So if you can weave a story into your article, so much the better. You don’t need to be the next Stephen King, a few sentences will do. To start this article, I chose to tell the story of why I was writing this article, and it took me literally one and a half sentences.

Your technical writing will come to life if you can bring in stories and human experience, without rambling or being long-winded. It’s often enough to explain the story as to why you happen to be writing your blog post. What chain of events—meetings, failures, successes—led to the thoughts you are now writing about?

7. Use subheadings for structure and to break up the text

Subheadings are under-used. I think this stems from school, where you had to write essays with no subheadings. Well, like a lot of the useless junk they taught you at school, ignore that and get some subheading action going!

There are three main uses for subheadings. First, they give structure for you as a writer, and help stop you from wandering off at futile tangents. Second, they signpost to the reader what is coming up, to help the reader make sense of your work and place it into context. The brain takes in information better if it understands ahead of time what it is going to be learning, and a subheading lets you do this. Third, a subheading is a cosmetic device to break up large amounts of text. It’s just more comfortable for the reader if you use regular subheadings.

As a side point, you can use little signposts like “First, second, third”, as I did in the paragraph above, to almost act as mini-subheadings and keep things on track.

8. Use fairly short paragraphs

As with subheadings, it’s easier for the reader of a blog if you keep paragraphs short. Paragraph length isn’t as important if your work will end up on paper—in a book or magazine—but for reading on screen short paragraphs help keep the eye from physically wandering. There’s no hard and fast rule, but five sentences or so is a reasonable length for a paragraph.

9. Back up your opinions with facts and links

A popular failing of bloggers is to state opinions without backing them up. Use facts, with links to the sources, wherever you can. The more authoritative the source, the more useful the fact or link will be in helping you to make your case. Wikipedia is OK to quote, but not great; it carries weight in the eyes of a lot of people, but of course the content is open to being abused. If your readers trust your sources, they are more likely to trust *you*.

10. Lay your work to one side, and proof read later

You should always proof-read your work before posting it. I always like to lay my work aside for a few hours, or preferably a few days, before coming back to it to proof-read it. If you allow time for your brain to recover from writing, and then come back to your post afresh, you will find mistakes, poorly-worded phrases, things that don’t make sense, and all kind of nasties! So unless you’re desperate to rush something topical onto your blog, it’s worth the wait and then doing a proof-read.

Bonus: Write your blog posts in Microsoft Word or Open Office

Whether you use Microsoft Word, Open Office or another product, just be sure to write in an actual word processor. This way you get a spell checker, and a grammar checker (which is mediocre but better than nothing). I recently exchanged some emails with a person who wrote his articles in a raw text editor, and they needed a lot of editing, much of which he could have avoided by writing in a word processor.

Final thoughts

These tips are all simple. Hopefully they’re all obvious too. There’s really nothing complicated here, but if you focus on these things your technical blog writing will noticeably improve, and so should your traffic.

Thirteen simple steps to planning a killer blog

If you’re going to start a blog, or want to plan a blog, here’s a useful 13 step blog planning worksheet.

If you’re going to start a blog, or want to plan a blog, here’s a useful 13 step blog planning worksheet.

If you think about these questions while you’re planning your corporate blog or personal blog you’ll keep your writing on-track. Good planning is the first step to success, so here’s what you need to consider.

Section 1: The basics

Q1. Audience: Who is your intended audience? In other words, who is your blog aimed at?

Q2. Purpose: Why will people read your blog? Examples include: for information, for entertainment, for relaxation, learning “How-To”.

Q3. Tone: What style of writing do you want? Examples include: formal, relaxed, conversational.

Section 2: Topics and categories

Q4. Topics: What general topic areas do you want to write about?

Q5. Categories: What categories will you divide your articles into?

Q6. The yawn test: Why will your readers care about each category you’ve chosen? If you’re struggling to think of a reason, ditch it!

Q7. Types of media: What media do you wish to use? Examples include text, images, video, audio.

Section 3: Ideas for articles

Q8. Sites to watch: Which sites are you going to regularly scan in order to get ideas for articles?

Q9. Life experiences: Which experiences in your day-to-day life are you going to use as a source of ideas for articles?

Section 4: Getting it written

Q10. Frequency: How often do you want to add a new article? (Once or twice a week is a good starting point).

Q11. Authors: Who is going to write your articles? Will you do this yourself, invite other contributors (free of charge), or pay people to write?

Section 5: Promotion

Q12. Announcing new articles: Where will you announce new articles? Publisha automatically posts to your Facebook wall and Twitter feed. Consider other specialist news sources, such as putting technical articles on Hacker News, and general sites such as StumbleUpon, Reddit and Digg.

Section 6: Tracking and improvement

Q13. Tracking: How will you see which articles are most popular, and decide which direction to take your blog in future? Publisha has built-in analytics, and you can easily link Google Analytics. These are likely to be your best choices.

Your traffic sources have a half-life

A couple of quick lessons from an interesting article.

I read a great article a while back that will be of interest to all publishers promoting their online publications. It’s called Your Traffic Sources Have a Half-Life by Rob Walling.

Here are a couple of quick lessons I take from the article:

1. Consider how much lasting, long-term value each piece of promotion has.

Every article you write goes towards boosting your SEO rankings, and attracting new readers, so each time you write an article you are investing in the future of your publication.

Advertising to get fans or followers can often be a good investment when you’re just starting out. But I found through real life experience when I was working with Publisha that once you hit a certain magic number of followers, around 1,000, you can stop advertising and things take off under their own steam.

2. Build your list of followers like crazy.

In this day and age, you’ll know that by sharing articles on Facebook and Twitter (and Google Plus if you like), you can increase your audience. Having Facebook “Like” buttons (or similar) on your articles encourages people to become a fan of your publication, where they will see messages you post on your wall from that point onwards.