How to Measure Employee Business Writing Skills

Mary Cullen
Post by Mary Cullen
Originally published December 5, 2013, updated April 25, 2023
How to Measure Employee Business Writing Skills

One of the challenges of improving business writing in an organization is actually measuring business writing skills. "Good business writing" is a coveted skill for every analytical and collaborative employee. But, "good business writing" is also an fuzzy concept and tough to codify and measure.

How then, can we measure "good business writing" skills?

1. Separate the measurement of content and analysis (the substance of a document) from the language of the document (the syntax).

Substance and syntax must be measured separately, because they are two distinct aspects unique to business writing.

Business writing requires a keen analysis of the audience and decisions about matching the right document content to that particular audience. If this is wrong, syntax improvements will never correct content gaps or repetition or jumbled content. If the content is wrongly matched to audience needs, polish alone will never fix it. 

So, to first measure business writing skills, we have to separate the substance of documents from the syntax.

2. Analyze the substance of typical employee documents to measure what is working and what is not.

  1. Define the goals of the documents your employees need to write. What do you want a reader to know or do after reading this document?
  2. Then assess the skills required to achieve the document purpose.

Every business document requires five core requisite skills. The first four are related to substance, while the last is related to syntax:

  1. Audience awareness

  2. Appropriate content

  3. Content logically categorized

  4. Content logically sequenced

  5. Syntax and grammar that is clear and correct and interesting

The key is to identify the desired business outcome of key documents, and then break down the writing skills into measurable components. 

This will give you the content measurements you need to truly measure what is working, and not working.

3. Working with the same representative documents, next analyze the syntax.

Good news. Syntax is much easier to evaluate than substance. And, syntax errors are very easy to fix. Typically, strong analytical employees, who likely work in finance, business analysis, technology, engineering, and energy, may not love business writing as part of their work only because they didn't write much in college. They preferred other courses. So, they may mistakenly feel their writing skills are weak.

In fact, they possess the critical analytical skills so important for substance. I'm guessing you didn't hire a financial analyst for his or her ability with commas. You hired him or her because of keen analytical ability in finance! 

Syntax Measurement Resource #1: Microsoft's Readability Index

Run the documents through this tool, which will provide actual measurements for passive vs. active voice, and simplicity of sentence structure. This is an excellent tool to assess the all-important element of clarity since it reports on:

1. Words per sentence (average)
2. Percentage of passive sentences
3. Flesch Reading Ease score
4. Flesch-Kincaid Grade Level.

Words per sentence - In general, the longer the sentence, the harder it becomes for your reader to follow along. That's not to say you should always write in short sentences. Instead, strive for a variety that makes for lively reading.

Percentage of sentences written in the passive voice measures the readability of your text as the ratio of passive sentences over active sentences.

The lower the score, the better. Active sentences are nearly always easier to read and understand, making your message clearer and more persuasive. Aim for a score less than 20%.

The Flesch Reading Ease (FRE) is the standard test of readability used by the U.S. Department of Defense for its documents and forms. 

The results can be between 0 and 100. The higher the score, the easier it is to understand what you have written. For example, a typical issue of Reader's Digest earns an FRE score of around 65 while Time Magazine scores in the low 50s. Lincoln's Gettysburg Address scores 74.2. One way to score higher is to use shorter sentences.

The results can be interpreted as follows:

* 0-29 - very confusing & hard to read
* 30-49 - difficult to read
* 50-59 - fairly difficult
* 60-69 - standard
* 70-79 - fairly easy
* 80-89 - easy
* 90-100 - very easy

Recommendation: A score of 60 or more. Higher is better. Even for business documents, a score of 60 is very achievable and it takes only a few edits to obtain it.

Flesch-Kincaid Grade Level (FKGL) translates the Flesch Reading Ease measure to a grade level. The grade level means the number of years of education generally required to understand the document. For example, a score of 9.4 would indicate that the text is expected to be understandable by an average student in the 9th grade. Most newspapers in the U.S. are written at a seventh to eighth-grade level.

Recommendation: 8.0 to 10.0 is a good target, but lower is better because it reflects language clarity, not content complexity.

Remember: these measurements only assess the syntax of documents, not the content. But, they will provide useful snapshot measurements to diagnose the clarity and syntax of employee documents.

Here are the Readability Scores for the article you are reading now:

how to measure business writing skills image resized 600

Passive voice is very low, so that's good. The Flesh Reading Ease score is just a bit above standard, which is fine since this is a complex topic and you, my fine readers, are smart business leaders! The Flesh-Kincaid grade level score assures me that even though the concepts in the article are complex, the language is easy to understand.

Syntax Measurement Resource #2: Microsoft's Grammar Check 

It is not infallible, but you can use a simple Grammar Check to discover the actual grammar errors presented in employee documents. Then, summarize those errors.

It's ineffective - and let's admit it's boring - to present general grammar training. Instead, address the actual errors presented. This is much more productive.

Consolidate and analyze your measurements

  1. See where the gaps in content are occurring. The usual gaps for content are in audience targeting and content. We all tend to write a subject from our understanding, instead of what our reader needs. Categorizing content logically is another very common issue in analytical writing. 

  2. The usual gaps in syntax are clarity and engaged tone. Grammar errors vary across organizations.

Knowing what is working, and not working, in your employees' business writing is the first step in truly improving business writing. Armed with real measurements, you can then provide employee feedback and request business writing training that addresses actual gaps.

Mary Cullen
Post by Mary Cullen
Originally published December 5, 2013, updated April 25, 2023
Mary founded Instructional Solutions in 1998, and is an internationally recognized business writing trainer and executive writing coach with two decades of experience helping thousands of individuals and businesses master the strategic skill of business writing. She excels at designing customized business writing training programs to maximize productivity, advance business objectives, and convey complex information. She holds a B.A. in English from the University of Rhode Island, an M.A. in English Literature from Boston College, and a C.A.G.S. in Composition and Rhetoric from the University of New Hampshire.