Say It With Less Jargon: Adjusting Website Reading Level to Your True Audience

If your writing style and website reading level are too difficult, you may be excluding valuable subscribers

If you want to know one of the reasons why print has been uprooted by the web, blame readability.

Ever since we’ve been publishing magazines, newspapers and newsletters, the jargon and over-complication of simple sentences for artistic value has been out of hand.

Case in point: That sentence was written at a 16th grade level, when I could have said, “Publishers have been over-complicating simple sentences for a long time.” And that sentence was written at a 10th grade level. “Publishers have been writing too many words to explain simple problems for too long” brings it down to an 8.

Which version is better? It depends who’s reading your blog or publication.

Is it any wonder why blogs are so popular? In blogs you have people speaking to other people in plain language, without journalism degrees, grammar hounds and endless synonym replacements.

And this issue with readability in print isn’t new; in fact, it’s the reason why Rudolph Flesch and Robert Gunning took hold of the publishing industry in the 1940s and ’50s. Leading up to World War II, printed publications were getting harder and harder to read and understand, so Gunning and Flesch convinced publishers to reduce the reading level of their articles.

Newspaper readership rose 45%! In fact, a 1948 study in the Journalism Quarterly showed that you could increase the number of paragraphs read by 93% if you dropped the reading level from 13th to 6th grade.

In 1949, Alan Gould, Executive Editor of Associated Press, said, “It is no exaggeration to say that the impact of Doctor Flesch’s ideas on simpler, clearer ways of writing represents one of the most significant developments of our journalistic times. The effect has been to make more readable—and, therefore, more understandable—the combined output of the three great media of free expression in the United States: the newspapers, the magazines, and the radio.”

This isn’t unlike the web, either. As it attracts more writers who become bloggers, the reading level in the world of blogs gets higher and higher. Academics will pat themselves on the back, but trends have shown that the more difficult something is to read, the less it will be read. Sure, business bloggers will re-tweet Harvard Business Review, which is typically written at a 13th grade reading level (18-19 years old) but how many actually read until the end?

I’m reminded of Gould again, as he wrote, “The answers are simple enough, as the doctor has demonstrated and our own Associated Press staff has proved. The basic answer is this: newspaper readers or radio listeners have a better chance of grasping the news, or what it means, if it is told to them simply and clearly.”

When you write at a 3rd-4th grade level, you’re writing so that people can read and consume quickly. As the grade level increases, the reading audience should also change.

Videomaker magazine writes it clearly into their guidelines that any submitted work must meet the Flesch-Kincaid Index of 11 or below. For a magazine in an industry with a lot of jargon, 11 is a challenge to meet.

Here are some examples I analyzed against the Flesch-KincaidGunning-FogColeman-LiauSMOG and their Automated Readability indexes. These are their averages across all:

  • Dwell: 7
  • Martha Stewart: 6.8
  • Better Homes & Gardens: 7.8
  • People: 4.9
  • USA Today: 6
  • Harvard Business Review: 13
  • Parenting: 8
  • TIME: 9

The 4.9 grade level for People is actually a serious step up because back in 2005, tabloid magazines and newspapers were criticized for writing at a 9th grade leading level.

However the a fairly consistent 8 across the board for Parenting made me worry. Harvard Business Review can get away with 13th grade reading level, and Dwell is good at 7, but Parenting appeals to a very broad, general audience and could benefit from toning it down.

Better writing doesn’t rely on semicolons and better synonyms. It counts on your ability to tell a story and keep someone’s attention from beginning to end. If your audience is broad and general (not business or academic) why not focus on the story? You have no professors or CEOs to impress, how nice!

Something else I noticed when looking through different magazine sites is that so many consumer-facing sites are relying on slideshows to display their content. Photo, paragraph, next page, photo, paragraph, next page… I couldn’t accurately judge them based on those formatting issues so I left them out, but it got me thinking. Slideshows are notoriously not user friendly, but they do break up content into bite-sized pieced, hypothetically lowering the grade level since it becomes much easier to read. Food for thought, I suppose.

So Don thought it would be fun if we put ourselves to the test, too! After averaging all the different indexes against 10 of our most popular articles, just as we did to the magazine websites above, this is where we came out.

  • Don: 10
  • Mary: 9
  • Amanda: 9
  • Ed: 9

Patrick, who writes about digital publishing news, got a grade of 11, which is not a big surprise since it includes lots of unavoidable jargon and quotes.

These numbers are pretty good on a readability scale when it comes to business blogging. Harvard Business Review finds themselves on the high end of the scale at 13, but they’re also writing on the behalf of academia. We’re over here trying to teach legacy publishers how to be better online publishers, so why to make it harder by writing in incomprehensive babble for no reason?

By the way, the Flesch Kinkaid tool is built into Microsoft Word. You can also use the Readability Score calculator online.

And although I doubt many people use it, you can search by reading level in Google.

Did this article make sense to you? It was written at a grade level of 11, but after editing it’s a grade 10.

I’d love your thoughts on reading level and any adjustments you’ve made. Let’s discuss in the comments below!


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    Amanda M.

    Cortni, the goal is to write for your own audience. That will determine which level to use. Higher reading levels typically indicate more jargon and unnecessary language. Is your goal to teach, or to stump the reader? Asking readers to go find a dictionary before they continue an article isn’t the answer. An eighth grade reading level has worked well for most publications including all the successful ones you see above.

    Cortni M.

    Really? Tone down an 8th grade reading level? That’s absurd. Why don’t we push for better education and elevate people so they’re better, more engaged readers? Catering to the masses isn’t a solution. Maybe your story will get read, and it’ll be forgotten as soon as they see another slideshow or cat video.


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