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Readability - Frequently Asked Questions
Send questions or comments on the DAS readability standard to Raelynn Henson.
 
Visit Microsoft.com for instructions on setting up readability statistics.  
 
 
Why is 10th grade reading our department standard?

We want to write at a level where all or most of our readers can easily and quickly understand what we have to say. You may be able to decipher material written for graduate physics students, but it is far quicker and easier to read material at the sixth to tenth grades. Also, some of our readers will always be busier or less skilled than others. We want to reach them all. Tenth grade is just the DAS minimum standard. If you are producing something for wide distribution, it makes sense to aim for a grade level of six to eight.
 
Does the standard apply to everything I write?

The tenth grade standard must be followed when you are publishing or making any wide distribution. That includes web, e-mail, and paper. It includes internal and external. The standard must also be followed when you write to (or for) any important stakeholders or customers. Those include governors, legislators, directors, administrators, CEOs, news people, and others.

You can ignore the standard for day-to-day e-mails or memos from one of us to one of our co-workers. You don´t have to, but you ought to use the standard for all your services to your customers, internal or external. You ought to use it for any document that is likely to be shared among several people. It is just good service to make your writing quick and easy to read.
 
But, I have a good education, why do I have to write below it?

Because you are the writer; not the reader. We write to provide information to all of our readers; not just the most skilled among them.
 
My work is too technical for tenth grade writing.

The Flesch-Kincaid test was designed for technical writing. Still, it does take more effort to make technical and legal material easy to read. Even so, it is worth the effort. Your audience includes legislators, general managers, users, and others who are not technical experts. They need to understand you. Remember to budget your big words. You may have to use big technical words but don´t waste your word budget on words like identify (tell), illustrate (show), or integrate (merge).
 
What is Flesch-Kincaid?

The Flesch-Kincaid grade formula is the US Department of Defense standard (DOD MIL-M-38784B). The Pentagon requires contractors to use it when they write technical manuals. They call it the Overall Reading Grade Level. The feds also say a good range is 6-10. This is the formula:

Grade Level = (.39 x ASL) + (11.8 x ASW) - 15.59.

ASL = average sentence length (# of words /# of sentences).

ASW = average syllables per word (# of syllables /# of words).

Scientists have run (roughly) one zillion tests to prove that we comprehend more and faster when the words and sentences are short and simple. There are dozens of competing formulas, but they are based on the same concept.

The Flesch Reading Ease formula has been in use for 50 years. It gives you a percent of ease from zero to 100 percent. MS WORD Ó 97, for reasons known only to MS, won’t show any reading grade level higher than 12. But, it does show reading ease scores all the way down to zero. A Microsoft Word document with a grade level of 12 and a Flesch Reading Ease of zero is hard for anyone to comprehend. The reading ease formula strongly favors short words. Here it is:

Reading Ease = 206.835 – ((1.015 X ASL) + (.846 X ASW X 100))

If your document´s reading ease is 55 to 60 percent, your grade level will be 10 or below.
 
Why rely on a formula? Some people write badly at any grade level.

Granted, the formula is not meant to fix all writing problems. But, isn’t it better than having an editor read and approve your writing? When we are not writing for the boss to sign or approve, most of us would rather do our own writing. Using the formula, we can. The formula makes it less likely that someone else will be telling you to re-write. In the your own cubicle, it tells you privately, "keep editing."
 
I can´t stand the Microsoft Word grammar checker. I spend all my time wading through it, just to get my readability results.

All computer grammar checkers can be frustrating. MS Word´s grammar check has no effect at all on its readability calculation. Turn off any grammar check element that does not help you. Some people turn off all checking except spelling and readability. Some, just turn on the few grammar items that they need.
 
I edited my document to get it to tenth grade. Now I don’t like how it sounds.

With practice, you will be able to write it the first time at an easy to read grade level. Until then, the best way to do it is to edit twice.
  • First, make it easy to read. Toss out long words in favor of short ones. Dump words and phrases that add no meaning. Use a pronoun to replace the strings of nouns we bureaucrats use to name things. Break long, complex sentences into two or three shorter ones. Make everything simpler. Simple grammar, simple sentences, and simple words.
  • After you get it below tenth grade, go back and edit again. This time, you can almost ignore grade level. Just, make sure it clearly says what you mean to say. You are unlikely to kick the grade level back up with this second edit. If you do, you will find it fairly easy to correct.
This two-step process is also the best way to change your writing habits. You will gradually find yourself writing at easy grade levels without effort. Don’t worry. You will still be able to resume your other styles when you need to.
 
I want to use bulleted lists and tables, but I understand the readability checker is confused by these and report high grade scores.

Not so. You have heard what appears to be an office myth. Lists and tables can be an excellent way to make your writing quicker and easier to understand. Use them often.

You can test these kinds of questions yourself. Use the copy functions to quickly construct some standard paragraphs. Use five letter, two syllable, nonsense words to make a five-word sentence. (Just copy "dodod" five times followed by a period.) Copy it into five-sentence paragraphs. These nonsense paragraphs yield a grade of 9.9 in MS Word Ó 97. Now, change them to bullets. Same score. Change them to tables with a paragraph in each box or a sentence in each box. Same score. What if you use a bulleted list of short phrases with no punctuation at all? MS Word Ó 97 scores it at zero. Add to it some paragraphs that score grade level 9.9 and the result for your document is grade 9.9.
 
I have to produce documents that are filled with numbers, nothing I do seems to bring the grade level down.

Here are some tips to make the reading easier:
  • Only use numbers in your document where they add real value for your readers.
  • Round off when you can. Most major engineering and science before the seventies was done with slide rules using just three significant digits and a well placed decimal point. Carrying a million dollar estimate out to the nearest dollar implies that our projections are amazingly precise. They aren´t.
  • Use graphs in place of numbers.
  • Place your masses of numbers in tables and appendices and don´t score them for readability.
  • Put extra effort into short words and sentences. Say "about" instead of "approximately," say "rose at in step with" instead of "increased proportionate to".
  • When you must put numbers into almost every sentence, you have tried all these tips, and your grade is still high, you can make this exception to the normal use of the readability checker. Check your grade without the numbers. If the text is seventh grade or below, consider the document´s readability is acceptable.
  • This is how to quickly check readability without the numbers. Save your document. If you want extra safety, save it again in your temp directory under another name. Now, click on these: edit, replace, more, special, any digit (this will go into the find box), and in the replace box just enter a space with a tap on the space bar. Click replace all and all your digits will disappear. Now do your readability check. Finally, close this altered document without saving it! Your document remains safely saved and unaffected by what you have done.
I understand we can round the grade level down. So, is our standard really 10.9999?

No. As you have noted, it makes no sense to say our standard is tenth grade if we pretend that everything up to eleven is a ten. Rounding down is for administrators to authorize when multiple authors have worked a document to death or an urgent deadline is upon them. It is the administrator´s judgment call to allow for an exception. Rounding is not the norm. Also, rounding is not appropriate for long-lived publications (like a brochure), for a department-wide document, or for anything being written for the director.