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Business Writing Style Tools

This article offers a strategy reminder and a tool to measure your business writing clarity.

Good strategy is summarized by Mark Twain, Ralph Waldo Emerson, and even the A-Team's Mr. T.:

  • "I notice that you use plain, simple language, short words and brief sentences. That is the way to write English - it is the modern way and the best way. Stick to it; don't let fluff and flowers and verbosity creep in." - Mark Twain

  • "It is not enough to write so that you can be understood; you must write so clearly that you cannot be misunderstood." - Ralph Waldo Emerson

  • "Don't gimme none o' that jibba-jabba!" - Mr. T

A good tool is the Readability Measurement within Microsoft Office and Outlook. By default, the "Spelling & Grammar Check" feature is enabled, and of course you should always run it to check for typos and errors. It is not infallible, but it will flag many errors. The Readability Measurement must be enabled, and will assess:

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

Why paying attention to these four readouts can improve your writing:

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 interesting and engaging 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, thus 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. It indicates how easy it is to read a given document.

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 50's. Lincoln's Gettysburg Address scores a 74.2. One way to score higher is to use shorter sentences.

       The results can be interpreted as following:

        * 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) measure translates the Flesch Reading Ease measure to a grade level. The grade level means the number of years of education generally required to understand a text. 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.

In business writing one should "write to express, not to impress." This does not mean you should dumb down your ideas and concepts. Instead, it requires you to express them with clean language.

These measurements are not perfect. They only assess the textual structure of your document, not content. But, they will provide snapshot measurements to diagnose the textual clarity in your documents.

                                                        Download Clarity in Business Writing Guide

Learn More in This Course: Effective Business Writing Techniques

Mary Cullen

About the author

Mary Cullen

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.

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