Be comfortable in your own Flesch

Jacob Lister | April 18, 2023

Every writer wants their writing understood. Otherwise, why write anything at all? Luckily for us, quick tools can help us to get a good idea of whether readers will easily understand what we’re writing. Of the range of tools available, Flesch readability statistics are a useful tool to use.

What are Flesch readability statistics?

These statistics tell you in a single number if your document is too hard to read at the sentence and word level. While it’s possible for bad writing to get a good Flesch score, a bad Flesch score means your writing needs improving. So if you’re peer reviewing, editing, or proofreading someone’s writing, Flesch scores can quickly tell you if the reader is going to struggle.

If you’re writing in English, Flesch readability statistics are one way to quickly tell if your writing will make sense for your audience. If you know who you’re writing for, and you know what their literacy level might be, you can tailor your language to best fit their needs.

Lots of different readability calculators are available, but we’ll focus on the two Flesch readability scores. They are included in Microsoft Word, so are the easiest ones to find and use.

Flesch-Kincaid grade level

The grade-level score tells you how many years of education someone would need to begin to understand your writing. A document with a grade score of 10 would barely be understood by someone at that reading level.

This number is based on the North American grade system, but is loosely equivalent to Aotearoa’s NCEA levels:
Grade 7    Year 8
Grade 8    Year 9
Grade 9    Year 10
Grade 10   Year 11 / NCEA level 1
Grade 11    Year 12 / NCEA level 2
Grade 12   Year 13 / NCEA level 3

Flesch Reading Ease

Reading Ease is a number from 1 to 100 that tells you how easy your writing is to understand on the first read. A high number is a strong sign your writing is easy to understand at a sentence and word level. A score of 60 is equal to a Flesch-Kincaid grade score of 7, which is widely considered accessible for the general public.

Screencap of a Word document's Readability Statistics including the Flesch-Kincaid Grade Level.

Readability statistics on this document / Image by Jacob Lister

Shorter words and sentences = better scores

The maths behind the two Flesch scores are different, but both are based on the same two things:

No matter what readability calculator you use, they only assess these two things.

Good scores don’t always mean your writing is good

Flesch readability statistics are good at checking writing at the sentence and word level, but they don’t assess big-picture elements. They also don’t check for:

It’s possible to get a good score even when all the above elements need work. But if you get a bad score, you will definitely need to improve your writing.

Download free resources on Write’s website — they’ll help you with things Flesch scores don’t check for. For tips on how to deal with each of these elements, book a place on one of our workshops:
Business Writing Essentials

Aim for a Flesch grade score of 7

The score you aim for depends on the audience you’re writing to. If you’re writing for the public, your goal is to make your writing understandable to as many people as possible. In Aotearoa, 97 percent of adults can understand writing at a Flesch-Kincaid grade score of 10. But the recommended score when writing for a public audience is a Flesch-Kincaid grade score of 7. This will give your audience the best chance of understanding your ideas.

If you’re only writing for an experienced or technical audience, you can adjust your writing to meet their expertise. But if you’re writing for a general audience and a technical audience, both will understand what you’re saying if it’s written in a simple way.

Simple language doesn’t mean dumbing down your ideas

Writing with a lower Flesch grade score doesn’t mean dumbing down your ideas. The goal isn’t to change your ideas. The goal is to articulate your ideas in a way that makes sense to as many people as possible. Even highly educated and technical audiences prefer simple language, because it’s easier to understand and easier to read.

Different countries have different literacy levels, and Aotearoa has one of the highest adult literacy levels in the world. This isn’t an excuse to up the difficulty of your writing. It always pays to consider your international audience, and those with English as an additional language.

Decorative image only

Enjoy that reading ease. Image by Seven Shooter / Unsplash licence

How do I access these stats?

Microsoft Word has Flesch readability statistics built in — but every version of Word has them in a different place.
Read Microsoft’s instructions on how to access Flesch readability scores

Who were Flesch and Kincaid?

In 1940, Rudolf Flesch set out to make newspapers easier to read. In his research, he found the number of syllables in words affected people’s ability to understand writing. So did the number of words in a sentence. From these findings, he developed the formula used to calculate the Flesch readability score.

In 1975, Peter Kincaid adapted the Flesch readability score to create the Flesch-Kincaid grade score. The Flesch-Kincaid readability score was developed for the US Navy to assess the readability of its technical manuals.

For more on how to make your writing easier to understand, check out these blogs on our website:
Seven simple tips to better accessibility and inclusion
Who ate the cake? Reviewing research on the active voice

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