In three articles I have written for Research Magazine in the past two years, I have referenced “Readability Statistics,” a utility buried deep in Microsoft Word and Outlook. It is the best tool I know to verify someone can read, and understand, your letters, e-mails, blog posts and proposals.

Just recently, I decided to read at least some of the new DOL regulations that will, if they stand up to court tests, transform this industry. A quick Google search put me on the DOL website.  

I could barely read even the first few paragraphs, so I decided to check on the “readability” of the DOL regs.

I copied several pages of text form the website, dropped it into a MS Word doc, and fired up Readability Statistics. Here’s what I found:

Flesch-Kincaid Grade Level: 21.7

In Readability Statistics, grade level is the number of years of education one should have to understand a document. For the DOL regs, you would require 12 years for high school graduation, four years of college, and another 7.1 years of graduate school.

That’s probably two PhDs! Sadly, my education was only through 2½ years of graduate school. No wonder I was struggling so much.

Flesch Reading Ease: 0.9 

“Reading Ease” is a scale of 1 to 100. A comic book has a Reading Ease score of 99. The Wall Street Journal is about 45. An auto insurance policy is about 10.

And this monster has a reading ease score of 0.9, the worst reading ease score I have ever seen.

Don’t feel bad if you want to read the regs. Just enroll in graduate school for another six years, and I am sure you can breeze right through them.

Testing Your Own Reading Ease

My recommendation: Test the readability of every document you produce.

Here are the instructions to turn on the Readability Statistic in your copy of Word and Outlook in Office 2007. I made a slight modification to accommodate for Word 2013 which is what I use.

Outlook

On the Tools menu, click Options.

  1. Click the Spelling tab, and then click Spelling and AutoCorrection.
  2. Click Proofing.
  3. Under ‘When correcting grammar in Outlook,’ select the ‘Check grammar with spelling check’ box.
  4. Select the Show readability statistics check box.

After you enable this feature, open a file that you want to check, and check the spelling. When Outlook or Word finishes checking the spelling and grammar, it displays information about the reading level of the document.

Word

  1. Click the Microsoft Office Button, and then click Word Options. In Word 2013, File–>Save>Options.
  2. Click Proofing.
  3. Make sure ‘Check grammar with spelling’ is selected.
  4. Under ‘When correcting grammar in Word,’ select the ‘Show readability statistics’ check box.

According to Wikipedia, Reading Ease scores of 90-100 represent a reading level that is good for fifth graders and have text that is very easy to read; 60-70 means you have written in plain English, which can be easily understood even by teenagers.

From 0 to 60, text is considered fairly difficult to very difficult to read.

My published writing never has a reading ease of less than 60 or a grade level more than 8.

When a final readability check is out of bounds, I will sometimes select a paragraph at a time and run Readability. When I have simplified the offending paragraphs, the document as a whole passes the test.

Here are my Readability Statistics for this article: Flesh Reading Ease 64.2; Flesh-Kincaid Grade Level of 6.8.

A couple of other points: Write short paragraphs. Write short sentences. I strive for 14 words or less. Allow few, if any, passive sentences.