For many businesses, a blog is the voice of the organization: it’s how your customers get to know your people, your products, and the values you represent.
But your posts will stand little chance of resonating with your audience unless you get one key ingredient right: the reading level. By pitching your content at an appropriate level, you can build relationships with your audience, improve SEO, and even drive an increase in sales.
Although we may have convinced ourselves in school that using longer words made our content sound more intelligent and got us better grades, we’re not all Oxbridge professors. If your content is pitched at too high a reading level, time-pressed readers may click on to something more fun and engaging.
Here, we’ll provide you with our top tips for identifying the right reading level for your audience and offer insights on how to edit your work to better engage your audience.
How reading level is calculated
Although there are several ways of measuring the reading level of a text, the Flesch–Kincaid reading formula is probably the most common. It provides a calculation of the level of education a reader would need to have achieved in the US school system to understand your content.
Based on the average length or your sentences and the number of syllables per word, it uses the following formula:
0.39 x (words per sentence) + 11.8 x (syllables per word) - 15.59
This calculation will give you a figure between 0 and 100, which is then matched against a school grade.
This is far from the only formula available to help you calculate the reading level of your blog, with the Power-Sumner-Kearl formula being another common method that also uses the metrics of average sentence length and number of syllables.
If this all sounds painfully complicated, a number of calculators will also work out your blog’s
reading level if you cut and paste a sample into an online tool.
What reading level should you be aiming for?
You might be surprised to learn that the average reading level in the US is a 7th or 8th grade level, which is equivalent to a 12- to 14-year old, according to research from The Literacy Project. In the UK, the Office for National Statistics puts the average reading age at nine years old, which reinforces the importance of keeping your content as simple as possible.
Furthermore, your readers will spend far less time reading a blog than they would print content, and according to data from NewsCred, the average user spends just 37 seconds reading a post. This is another argument for keeping your content as easy-to-understand as possible.
If you’re trying to determine the right reading level for your audience, you could consider taking examples of popular articles that have been shared in your field. Copying these into an online reading level calculator should give you an idea of the complexity level that would work best for your readers.
How the wrong reading level turns blog readers off
When writing blog posts, one of the most common mistakes authors make is to pitch their content at too high a reading level.
If you choose overly complex vocabulary, your readers may struggle to understand your intended meaning and give up reading, which, in a worst-case scenario, could result in a loss of business for your company.
This is especially true of readers who may be using your blog as part of a purchasing decision or to find the answer to a frequently asked question. These individuals aren’t looking to be impressed by your flair for writing; they’re seeking to find the information they need as quickly as possible.
On the other hand, to play devil’s advocate, it would be a mistake to oversimplify your content to reach your reading level target. If your audience is professional, this approach could alienate them as well.
3 Tips for lowering your blog’s reading level without dumbing it down
As a business owner, you’re no doubt aware that it can be a fatal error to insult your customers’ intelligence. So, how can you pitch your content at the right reading level while still treating your reader with respect?
1. Cut down sentence length
By keeping sentences short and snappy, you should, in theory, prevent your reading level from becoming too high without reducing meaning. Reading levels aside, concise sentences are also good editorial practice.
2. Avoid complicated language
Write as you speak. Why should something be described as “verbose” when the term “wordy” would do? Be honest, do you ever tell your partner their argument is “erroneous” or do you just say “wrong”? If you’re not 100% certain of a word’s meaning, the chances are your readers won’t be sure either.
3. Always read your content out loud
As part of the proofreading process, it can prove helpful to read your written words out loud, even if this is only to yourself. Hearing your words actually spoken gives you a fresh perspective and can help you identify any clunky or needlessly complex sentences. As a general rule of thumb, any sentences that need to be spoken in more than one breath may be candidates to shorten.
Create a reader profile
Whether it’s Steve from Manchester or Michelle from Chicago, it’s essential to have a clear idea of who your reader is when you’re deciding on the most appropriate reading level for your blog. It may be helpful to draw up a profile of your typical reader.
How old is your typical reader? What might this person do for a living? What are they looking to achieve from reading your blog? Attempt to put yourself in the mindset of this potential reader. Would they understand a certain concept or find a particular word off-putting?
Consider mobile devices
With readers increasingly engaging with content via mobile devices, consulting mathematical formulas isn’t the only way to ensure your content is clear and accessible. As well as paying attention to factors such as sentence length, consider the visuals of your blog.
By adding headers, images and infographics, you can help break the text into digestible chunks. Otherwise, reading long-form content could well prove a strain on your readers’ eyes.
Use tech to improve your reading level
If you’re concerned about achieving the right reading level for your blog, you could consider making use of free apps such as Hemingway. The tool, which takes its name from the famously unpretentious writing style of Ernest Hemingway, will help you to improve readability by identifying instances of bad practice, such as use of passive voice, unnecessarily complex language, and hard-to-read sentences.
One of the most interesting things about consciously setting your blog’s reading level is that it gives you the opportunity to combine the creativity of writing with the reliability of concrete formulas. As a writer, you are able to enjoy the best of both worlds.
Remember, you’re not writing your blog for yourself. While you may have crafted something you personally find brilliant and innovative, all your efforts will be in vain if your blog post goes straight over your readers’ heads.
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Katy Ward has been an editor and writer for more than a decade. Having written for both national newspapers and independent media outlets from her home in the north of England, she specialises in finance, tech, mental health, and the arts. As well as penning short stories in her spare time, she can be found on Twitter at @KatyWardHull