How Readable Is My Business Document?

Document Readability

Have you ever read a document at work and found you have to re-read it several times to properly understand the meaning? Have you written a document which was clear to you but not, it turned out, to your readers? There may be factors in such documents which act together to reduce how readable they are.

The good news is the readability of any form of writing can be measured fairly objectively. This provides valuable feedback to writers. It doesn’t guarantee the document is effective – only that it is readable.

There are tools used to measure how readable your business document is.

The ones this article will focus on are: Gunning Fog Index

[GFI], Flesch Reading Ease Score [FRE] or Flesch Kincaid Grade Level [FKG]. Readability is measured by the sentence length and the amount of polysyllabic words used in a paragraph – words of three syllables or more.

The GFI was developed in 1952 by an American business man, Robert Gunning. The higher the index, the more difficult the document is considered to read. To use this method there are five steps:

  1. select a document or a section of a document
  2. divide the number of words by the number of sentences – this gives the average sentence length
  3. count the polysyllable words – omitting proper nouns, headings and compound words. Also omit words that become three syllables by adding ‘ing, ed or es’
  4. add the average sentence length with the percentage of polysyllable words and…
  5. multiply the answer by 0.4 – the multiplier used for more highly educated societies like Australia.

A GFI of 11 or less is considered to be a good score. For technical documents a GFI of 14 or less is good. The GFI for Time magazine is said to be typically around 10.

The FRE is one of the oldest readability tools. It was developed by an Austrian writer in 1948. It is based on the premise that the overuse of long words and long sentences makes writing difficult to understand.

The FRE scale is 0-100. The lower the score the more difficult the document is to read. A standard score is 60-80 or about 15-20 words per sentence and 1.3 – 1.5 syllables per word. Many word processing programs have provision for measuring the FRE of the document.

The Flesch Kincaid Grade Level [FKG] was adapted by J Peter Kincaid and his team for the US Navy in 1975. It correlates with American college grade levels and is, therefore, less relevant in an Australian context.

Of course, readability can be affected by factors other than the ones encompassed by these various scores. Poor spelling, punctuation and grammar can all impact the ease of reading a document.

Spellcheck is a useful tool but not always reliable. It doesn’t recognise some proper nouns and can revert to American spelling. Also, it doesn’t recognise the meaning of the words as long as the spelling is correct, for example: hear/here.

Grammar check can be useful in pointing out possible inconsistencies. However it is often wrong and has a narrow approach to grammar. It doesn’t take account of context.

There are on-line tools to help you with your business writing readability. Some are helpful, but be careful as many may be more appropriate for an American audience or just plain wrong. A good business writing course is probably the better way to learn. One that includes techniques to help you write a more readable document is better.

So much time in business is wasted due to poorly written documents. Paying attention to the readily available scores mentioned in this article can transform your business writing. Your readers will thank you as well, as their speed of reading increases and their level of confusion declines.