Do reading ease scores lead us astray?

Inclusive Fundraising

You may have heard that you must must MUST write your fundraising at a certain “reading ease” level. And that reading ease is measured by formulae you absolutely must follow.

Well, maybe …

Reading ease scores can be helpful guides for inclusive writing and plain language. Here are the two most common scoring systems:

  1. Flesch-Kincaid Grade Level. It gives your writing a “grade level,” where lower means easier. Easy-to-read fundraising should aim for Grade 6 or lower. The downside of this scoring is it implies that the score is tied to the education or age of the reader. It’s not. It only measures ease of reading. But you can see why some people think Grade 6 is for children, not adults.
  2. Flesch Reading Ease. This yields a score between 0 and 100, with a higher score being easier to read. Fundraising should usually be at 80 or higher.

Both systems are research-based, well-known, and easy to access. There are other systems, and many languages have reading ease systems geared for those languages.

The problem with both systems is that they only measure two things: Sentence length and word length.

There’s more to readability than those two things.

Relying on them alone can be misleading: You could have a “great” readability score on writing that’s very hard to read. And vice versa.

Here are some of the other factors that affect readability…

Vocabulary

The scores assume that short words are easy, while long words are difficult. Not quite true. There are plenty of very small words that few people know. Here’s a sentence that would get a great score, but is almost incomprehensible to most readers: Cwm fjord-bank glyphs vext quiz. And not all long words are a barrier for all readers. Familiar words are easy to read, even when they’re long.

The thing is, everyone has a different vocabulary. There’s no universal hard/easy score for all words. The scores just go by average syllables per word and call it good. The correlation between word length and comprehension is good, but it can be way off.

Using a readability-enhancing vocabulary requires being audience-aware: knowing what they are likely to know, understanding the ways they are different from you.

Cadence/rhythm

The “flow” of a piece of writing can work for or against its readability. You’ve probably had the experience of reading something that just seems to carry you along, even though the sentences are long.

Good rhythm in writing is a moving target: your ideal rhythm might be “choppy,” might be “smooth.” Might be fast or slow. It depends. It should be consistent, but not too consistent.

The scores pay no attention to rhythm. I’m not sure it’s measurable in a meaningful way. Most writers are not much aware of rhythm. Even many excellent writers only do it well by instinct.

They don’t teach this in most writing classes. The best way to be good at it is to read a lot and listen to what you read and write.

Relevance

This is the big one. If something is interesting to you, you can read it. Even if the score is less than ideal. And if it’s boring, it is a struggle to read, no matter how excellent the score.

Of course, one person’s fascinating is another’s tedious. That’s why the scores have zero awareness of the very idea of relevance. Sadly, the same could be said for many people who write fundraising. As with vocabulary, knowing if you’re being relevant to readers requires a high level of audience awareness.

Why even use readability scores?

  • It’s better than ignoring the issue.
  • The correlation between good scores and readability is decent.
  • I’ve found that when writing has a bad score, it’s usually doing the non-measured things poorly too.

So pay attention to the readability score of your choice.

But read your writing too! That’s a better way to judge than a robot counting words and syllables.

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The future of fundraising is not about social media, online video, or SEM. It’s not about any technology, medium, or technique. It’s about donors. If you need to raise funds from donors, you need to study them, respect them, and build everything you do around them. And the future? It’s already here. More.

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Jeff BrooksJeff Brooks has been serving the nonprofit community for more than 35 years and blogging about it since 2005. He considers fundraising the most noble of pursuits and hopes you’ll join him in that opinion. You can reach him at jeff [at] jeff-brooks [dot] com. More.


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The future of fundraising is not about social media, online video, or SEM. It’s not about any technology, medium, or technique. It’s about donors. If you need to raise funds from donors, you need to study them, respect them, and build everything you do around them. And the future? It’s already here. More.

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About the blogger

Jeff Brooks has been serving the nonprofit community for more than 30 years and blogging about it since 2005. He considers fundraising the most noble of pursuits and hopes you’ll join him in that opinion. You can reach him at jeff [at] jeff-brooks [dot] com.

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