Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Even giant corporations can cause readability problems

Today IBM and SPSS issued a press release announcing a merger agreement.

The companies have better-than-average records for readability and clarity. As a writer and editor in the software industry, I followed both companies for decades, and admired their writers.

So, out of curiosity, I submitted today’s release to the Flesch Reading Ease test. Here are the scores:

Average sentence length: 29.3 words (very long)
Average word length: 5.6 characters (not too bad)
Flesch Reading Ease score: 12.3 (harder to read than a tax form)

For calibration, here are a few sample ranges of test scores, from higher readability (top of list) to lower readability (bottom of list):

60s Reader’s Digest
50s Time magazine
40s The Wall Street Journal
30s Harvard Law Review; white papers
20s IRS forms; academic papers
10s Many high-tech web sites

The Takeaway: In the software industry (and many other tech industries), the names of products and product categories are usually long. So the quickest way to increase readability is to reduce sentence length. If you write for a tech company, strive for a readability score above 50. Settle for 30 to 50 if names are long. But try not to drop below 30. For most readers, below 30 is too hard to read.

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