Monday, September 20, 2010

The fastest way to improve the clarity of your writing

The fastest way to improve the clarity of your writing is to improve the readability of your writing. Fortunately, there’s an easy and convenient way to keep track of how much you’re improving readability: it’s Flesch Reading Ease (FRE), the world’s favorite readability test, and it’s built into Microsoft Word. FRE measures readability by word length and sentence length.

Some real-world FRE scores

FRE scores range from approximately 0 (the lowest readability) to approximately 100 (the highest readability). Here are a few sample ranges of test scores:

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

How to set up the readability test

FRE is part of the grammar-checking function of Microsoft Word. To set up FRE, open a Word document and click the Options tab (its location is different on different versions of Word). Then check (turn on) “Check grammar with spelling” and check (turn on) “Show readability statistics.”

FRE is now ready to test any Word document. Whenever you spell-check a document, Word will show you the document’s FRE score.

How to keep improving

Get into the habit of checking the FRE score of every draft of every document. Aim for an FRE score above 50. If you fall far below 50, look for sentences that you can shorten or break up, and look for words that you can replace with shorter words. Then check again to see how much more readability you have achieved. As you do this, week by week, your readers will notice a steady improvement in your writing.

The Takeaway: Measuring the readability of your drafts is the fastest way to improve your readability, which in turn is the fastest way to improve your clarity. Test every draft with Flesch Reading Ease (FRE), which is built into Microsoft Word. The mere act of running FRE every day will help you get into the habit of using shorter words and sentences. In 43 years of writing, editing and teaching, I have seen only a few techniques as powerful as this. You will be delighted to see how much you improve.

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