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Using Microsoft’s “Readability Statistics” Feature to Create Plain Language

Plain language is baked into the Digital Strategy. It charges content editors with using plain language for two reasons:

  • to be customer-centric
  • to use web content best practices

In addition, the Plain Writing Act of 2010 requires most public-facing content (except for regulations) to be written in plain language.

So: Now we have a law telling us we have to use plain language. We have a Digital Strategy that compels us to. And so plain language officially shifts from a “nice to have” to “must have.” It’s time to get on the plain train.

How to write in plain language

Trouble is, it’s tough to explain to someone why their content is not in plain language. It’s not scannable, you tell them. It doesn’t use familiar, clear words. It uses the passive voice, jargon, and bureaucratese. It doesn’t read clean on a first pass. We provide checklists, and point them to plainlanguage.gov.

That’s a lot of abstract feedback for an author to digest. So I like to use something that plain language purists hate: Microsoft Word’s Readability Statistics feature. (See the bottom of this post for a step-by-step on how to turn this feature on.)

The tool reports two statistics for any document written in Word: Flesch-Kincaid Grade Level and Flesch Reading Ease. They’re computed using simple formulas that account for word, sentence, and paragraph length. You want to shoot for a lower grade level and higher reading ease score. In our content shop, we aim for 9th grade and 50. When we’re really good, we hit 8th grade and 60.

Why is Microsoft Word’s Readability Statistics tool so valuable?

If you tell a content creator their work is written at 17th grade (more common than you’d think) and 24 (ditto), you’ve provided an objective measure that gets their attention. It may even embarrass them. Instruct them to revise using the stats tool until they hit a particular target.

Almost invariably the language clears up.

Almost miraculously they sometimes enjoy the process.

An imperfect tool? Of course

So why do plain language purists hate using objective data like this?

Because (they argue), prose that scores well can still be unplain. They are correct. But (we argue back), language almost always gets plainer when revising with these tools and it almost never gets worse. Shorter words, sentences, and paragraphs: These things are essential to making language plain. This tool helps writers achieve them.

It is true even after the words are improved there is plenty of plain language work to do. But we content wranglers live in bunkers with plenty of incoming. We have to work fast and hard to protect citizens from impenetrable prose. Readability tools can create plainer language. It then can be tweaked for scannability, use of bullets and headings, and other features of plain writing later in the process.

Curious? We recommend you give it a try. If it doesn’t work for you, try something else.

(You were about to ask: This entry scores 6.2 and 69.7 It was 8.2 and 57.0 before I started revising it.)

How to turn on Word’s Readability Statistics feature

Screenshot of Microsoft Word’s Readability Statistics tool results report.

Screenshot of Microsoft Word’s
Readability Statistics tool results report.

Word 2007:

  1. Click on the colored round button on the upper left corner of Word.
  2. At the bottom of the menu that pops up, click Word Options.
  3. On the left-hand menu, click “Proofing.”
  4. Under the third menu header, “Check spelling and grammar in Word,” check the box “Show readability statistics.”
  5. Click OK.

Word 2010:

  1. Click “File” at the top left.
  2. Select “Options” at the bottom of the menu.
  3. On the left-hand menu, click “Proofing.”
  4. Under the third menu header, “When checking spelling and grammar in Word,” check the box “Show readability statistics.”
  5. Click OK.

Now, when you are writing or editing a document, click on the “Review” tab on the top ribbon on Word. Click on “Spelling & Grammar.” When that process is complete, a box will pop up with your readability statistics

How do you think the government is doing? Are we writing in plain language?

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Your Ideas

Submitted by Me on
If I need to print the thing out, how would I make it stay in place?
Submitted by Anonymous on
Didn't know about this tool. Thanks for posting!
Submitted by Anonymous on
Posted by: Chris at HHS Yes, all our content is public domain information and you’re free to reuse it.
Submitted by Anonymous on
Can I adapt this article and share with my professional organization?
Submitted by Anonymous on
How do you turn on readability in the Word 2010 version? This example looks like it's from the former version.