Better writing: readability scores don’t measure readability

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IQ Scores and Readability Scores

“What do IQ tests measure?”

A psychologist friend of mine asked me that question and I leaped at the opportunity to demonstrate my knowledge. “Intelligence!” I answered, wondering why he had asked a question that had such an obvious answer.

My friend flashed a “Gotcha!” smile. “Nope,” he said, “Intelligence tests only measure the score on intelligence tests.” Then he explained.

He told me that IQ tests measure some of the things we associate with intelligence. You may fit abstract shapes together or recognize patterns or sort numbers or letters. How you do you do on those things seems to correlate with your ability to solve abstract problems. How well you do is reduced to a single number: your IQ.

It’s the same with that popular Flesch Kincaid reading ease score. It turns things like your average sentence length and average syllables per word into a number. In general, the higher the number, the more readable the document is supposed to be. It’s helpful, but it’s not enough.

Readability scores and your document.

Don’t get me wrong. The score can help you improve your writing. Streamline your vocabulary in a business article and your score will go up. Simplify your structure with more simple, declarative sentences and your score will go up. That’s probably good.

Readability scores don’t measure readability

Readability scores measure the structure of your words and sentences and paragraphs. They measure things that are correlated with readability, But, if you want to know if an article or blog post or book chapter is readable, you have to actually read it.

Read your writing aloud

Print out your document and read it out loud. Your tongue will trip over things that score just fine. The readability score may not change, but the readability will change. Then you face another challenge.

It may be readable but not make sense

Don’t stop with whether your document scores well and reads smoothly. Ask yourself if it makes sense. Does the structure work? Are the examples helpful and clear? Have you answered all the questions readers may have?

Readability scores are just one tool

Readability scores are just one tool in your box. Use them to help you improve your writing. But don’t use them by themselves. Read your work aloud to make it smooth. Revise it so it makes sense.

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