Do you read me?

How simple should our prose be? Put your writing to the readability test. As the authors of public affairs materials — fact sheets, news releases, policy papers and more — we are given the assignment of being comprehensive while being clear and concise. Simple is hard.

Professional writers often get caught walking the “readability” tightrope, balancing between being “too complicated” and accused of “dumbing it down.” Keeping the audience in mind always is the best gauge. That always will help in deciding the level of detail and complexity you may get away with in any document.

Of course, there is the Flesch-Kinkaid two-tier scale of readability developed by the military in the 1970s. The Reading Ease score indicates how easy a text is to read. A high score implies an easy text. The Flesch-Kincaid Grade level indicates the grade a person will have to have reached to understand the text. 

The scoring goes something like this: 

•  90.0–100.0: Easily understood by an average 11-year-old student;

•  60.0–70.0; Easily understood by 13- to 15-year-old students; and 

•  0.0–30.0: Best understood by university graduates.

The average reading level of Americans is between eighth and ninth grade. 

Somewhere I heard we should be writing for the level of a sixth grader if we want to be understood. That’s 90 points or higher. For good or bad, that doesn’t seem to be happening in the public affairs world, or even journalism.

Here’s my quick, random readability survey of local writers. Using Flesch-Kinkaid, John Canzano of The Oregonian was the most readable:

 • Mayor Sam Adams: An e-letter sent last week about the Education Urban Renewal Area was ranked at Grade level of 14 with a Reading Ease score of 33

•  The Oregonian’s lead story May 21 about condors was ranked at Grade level 11 with a Reading Ease score of 46.

•  KGW website’s top story about a murder at a Hillsboro home was ranked at Grade level 10 with a Reading Ease score of 46. 

•  John Canzano, The Oregonian’s sports columnist writing about Twitter hate mail directed at Steve Blake for missing a three-pointer at the buzzer was ranked Grade level 10 with 
a Reading Ease score of 52.

• This Managing Issues blog last week on strike communications was ranked at Grade level 11 with a Reading Ease score of 42.

Take the test on your own by visiting the link at the bottom of the page.

Just for fun, NPR ran a story May 21 about looking at the members of Congress whose words in the Congressional Record rank highest and lowest by grade level. The comments of the last place finisher were worth noting. That was South Carolina Republican Rep. Mick Mulvaney, who ranked the very lowest, with a grade level of 7.94.

"Gosh, I guess I should be disappointed that I'm not using my higher education to better use, but, oh well," Mulvaney says. "I hope people don't take it as a substitute for lack of intellect, but small words can be just as powerful as big words sometimes."

Mulvaney graduated with honors from Georgetown and earned a law degree at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill. His father was a high school grammar teacher, NPR reported.

"I was trained to write in a clear and concise fashion, and you didn't use big words if small words would do," he says. "Certainly I'm not trying to dumb down the message by any stretch of the imagination." 

The NPR story continued: Frank Luntz, a Republican consultant and language guru, puts it this way: "It's not an issue of dumbing it down; it's an issue of cleaning it up." 

“He says there was a time when members seemed to use the biggest, most complicated phrases possible and didn't really worry about whether the public could understand them. Now, he says, members are no longer just talking to each other. They're talking to the public through cable TV and YouTube.”

"Life has changed," Luntz says. "They not only expect but they demand that members of Congress communicate in a way that is more understandable and more meaningful to them."

 And that’s true for us in the public affairs realm, as well. 

This blog is rated at Grade level 10 with a Reading Ease score of 50.

How do you score? To test your documents, click here.