Writing Better Content: Three Tools to Help

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Ever hear the phrase, “right tool for the right job”? Today we’re going to discuss how three free tools embedded in Microsoft Word can help you improve your writing.

How? By making your sentences and paragraphs easier to read and understand, which should lead to a higher impact among your intended audience. They may or may not go where you want them to go, but if your content is hard to read or understand, you’re almost certain to lose them.

First stop: identifying, and eliminating, the passive voice. Your first clue that the passive voice has crept into your written content is when sentences don’t have a subject (i.e., the person doing the action).

Consider this time-honored responsibility dodge: “Mistakes were made.” Who made those mistakes? Readers want to know: was it Steve or Becky or Jim? Using the passive voice invites your readers to cast a skeptical eye to what you’re saying: “If you won’t even tell me who made the mistakes, why should I believe that you are telling me everything about those mistakes?”

Below, we’ll show you how to activate a free tool in Microsoft Word that flags the passive voice.

Two Other Tools to Write Better

Next stop: Using two readability tools – the Flesch Reading Ease and the Flesch Grade Level — to write better. Both apply mathematical formulas to your content to measure different things.

It may help to think of the tools as similar to bowling and golf. In bowling, and in the Flesch Reading Ease test, the high score wins. In golf, and the Flesch Grade Level test, the low score wins.

The Flesch Reading Ease test measures the readability of your written content. It plugs two inputs —the average length of your sentences (measured by the number of words) and the average number of syllables per word — into a formula to compute how easy it is to read your content

Remember, in this test, higher scores are better, just like in bowling.

Consider this sentence: “The furry feline reclined languidly across the woven floor covering.”

That sentence is ugly for a lot of reasons, but for our purposes, it flunks the Flesch Reading Ease test. It scored a 32.5 on a scale of 0 to 100. Your copy should score a 70 or higher to ensure it can easily be read by the broadest range of readers.

Consider this rewrite, which conveys the same essential meaning: “The cat sat on the mat.” That scored a 77.8 on the Flesch Reading Ease test, roughly twice as readable as the original sentence. Shorter sentences and fewer syllables make your content easier to read.

Communications tip of the month: When communicating on any topic, use short sentences and words with fewer syllables. Easily test your copy using the readability tools in Microsoft Word!

Next, the Flesch Grade Level test (also known as the Flesch-Kincaid Grade Level Readability Test), which measures how much education a reader would need to fully understand your writing. Here, the lower score is better — like golf.

Let’s go back to our test sentence, above: “The furry feline reclined languidly across the woven floor covering.”

The Flesch Grade Level test scores this sentence as a 10.4 – meaning the average reader would need about a 10th grade education to fully understand the sentence.

You might think that’s not bad — after all, you probably have a college education, and so do most of your peers. But only about 50% of adults have a four-year college education, according to the U.S. Census. This sentence might be understandable to many of your readers, but can we make it even easier to understand?

In Journalism school, students are taught to write general-interest content that can be read by the average 8th grade student. That should be our goal as well.

So let’s run our rewritten sentence through the Flesch Grade Level test. “The cat sat on the mat” scored a 5.8 — understandable to anyone with about six years of education. Lower score wins!

Flesch Reading Ease

Like bowling — aim for higher score
Aim for 60-70

Flesch Grade Level

Like golf — aim for lower score
Aim for 7-8

Both metrics driven by sentence length and syllable count!

Part of the challenge facing energy communicators and marketers is that our industry is inherently complex. That means we need to work a little harder to find words that are easily understandable for the general population. When we get dense, complex, fact-heavy explanations for something, we need to find shorter, everyday words, to make it more understandable to the public.

Writing Better: Two Real-Life Examples

I went to the internet and selected press releases from two utilities, more or less at random, to assess Flesch readability and grade level scores. Then, I tried to make them more readable and understandable by revising them. I left off the names to try to put all readers at ease.

Here is one real-life example of copy needing improvement:

“With the heavy construction season around the corner, (name of utility) will be continuing its work to upgrade the electric and gas infrastructure across (region) with nearly $660 million in planned investments this year.”

The Flesch Reading Ease score was 19.5 (higher is better) and the Flesch-Kincaid Reading Level score was 18.7 (lower is better). This sentence was not easy to read or understand.

I revised it to:

“(Name of utility) plans to invest nearly $660 million to improve its electric and gas service across (region).”

The rewrite has a Flesch Reading Ease score of 25.3 (higher is better) while the Flesch-Kincaid Grade Level was 13.9 (lower is better). Better on both counts than the original, but there’s room for further improvement.

Here’s another example:

“(Name of energy company’s) customer bills, already among the lowest in the state and nation, will begin the new year with a decrease in January. The typical (company name) residential customer monthly bill will decrease by nearly $4 due to lower operating costs. The company also is able to avoid an additional charge to pay for the (natural disaster) and restoration efforts, saving each customer an average of approximately $54.”

The Flesch Reading Ease score was 25.5. The Flesch-Kincaid Reading Level score was 15.5. Not terrific on either count.

Here’s my rewrite:

Lower operating costs will reduce electric bills for customers in (region) by nearly $4 per month starting in January, (name of utility) said today. (Utility) added that customers will not have to pay charges tied to (natural disaster), which will keep an extra $54 per year in customers’ pockets.”

The rewrite scored a 38.6 on the Flesch Reading Ease score and a 13.9 on the Flesch-Kincaid Reading Level score. Again, more readable and understandable compared to the original, but further improvements are possible.

Activating the Tools to Write Better

By activating the “readability” option in Microsoft Word, you can easily check the number of passive sentences in your content as well as its ease of readability and the amount of education required to understand your content. In an opened Word document:

  • Click “Editor”
  • Click “Settings”
  • Under “When correcting spelling and grammar in Word,” make sure to turn on the “Check grammar and refinements in the Editor pane”
  • Select “Show readability statistics”

Now, every time you spell-check a Word document, its readability scores will appear after spell-check is complete. That tool also will show what percentage of your sentences are in the passive voice, which should be as close to zero as possible.

Better Writing Comes from Practice

The Flesch Reading Ease and the Flesch-Kincaid Reading Level are not the only set of tools available to assess the readability and understandability of your copy. But they have been around the longest and are among the most widely used.

If you’re trying to write copy that can be easily read by the average 8th grade student, you’d want to shoot for a Flesch Reading Ease score of 60-70 and a Flesch-Kincaid Reading Level of 8.

Remember, the keys to making your copy easier to read and understand are:

  • Shorter sentences
  • Fewer syllables per word

By the way, according to that tool, roughly 4% of the sentences in this blog post were passive. The reading ease score was 55 (higher scores are better) and the grade level was 9.8 (lower scores are better). For this blog, more than most, I ate my own cooking, shortening sentences whenever possible and using shorter words whenever I could.

Writing is a craft, like carpentry, cooking and throwing a curveball. Success comes from blending art and science into your unique technique, and from practice. For those with the inclination, working in the written word offers numerous opportunities to make continuous improvements until the piece is as good as you can make it.

As Albert Einstein once said, “Everything should be made as simple as possible, but no simpler.” Not a bad standard to set for yourself.

Photo Credits: iStock/Getty

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