Rethinking readability: Why dancing with a robot may not be so bad after all!

Rethinking readability

In my last blog post, I ranted about how we all live under rigged systems (credit scores, SEO, fashion, and readability scores). It wasn’t until I was writing about readability that I started having second thoughts about that part of my rant.

Maybe readability formulas aren’t all that evil?

I now realize that when I’m adhering to the requirements of my website readability tool, I pay more attention to each word in each sentence. But it’s bigger than that. I’m actually thinking about you, my dear readers, and how you might process my sentences and, hence, my ideas. And then I saw my thought process stretching even wider—I’m now thinking about my ideas more critically as I write.

All this from a computerized readability tool that I had completely disparaged!

So who was Rudolf Flesch anyway, and what did he teach us about readability?

Then, by chance, I read Everybody Writes: Your Go-To Guide to Creating Ridiculously Good Content by Ann Handley. I stumbled across Handley’s confession of a “bit of love-hate for readability scoring methodologies, in part because I think writers should rely on their own sensibilities to determine whether their writing is on target for their audiences. In other words, relying on a formula to spit out a score seems like you’re selling yourself short” (p. 80). She goes on to explain how Rudolf Flesch, the creator of the Flesch Reading Ease score, based his formula on how our brains work.

Unfortunately, she’s not really summarizing Flesch’s words. It seems that she’s plagiarizing his words in her attempt to paraphrase. Here, see for yourself:

Flesch writes Handley writes
When you read a passage, your eyes and mind focus on successive points on the page. Each time this happens, you form a tentative judgment of what the words mean up to that point. When any of us is reading, the mind and eyes focus on successive points, allowing for a tentative judgment to be made about what the text means up to that point.

Maybe it’s not as bad as a Presidential candidate’s wife plagiarizing a former First Lady’s speech, but still…

Read Flesch’s original account of his formula–it’s so clear and easy to understand.

Thinking about readability makes me think about my reader

And regardless of the politics of readability, I do think that aiming for better numbers (fewer passive sentences, higher “reading ease,” and lower grade level) has forced me to revise my text to comply with my blog tool. Although I still feel like I’m trying to dance with a robot, it feels good to be more aware of you, my reader. So while I will still rail against rigged credit scores, SEO, and fashion, I think readability scores may be helpful after all.

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