Wouldn’t it be great to get professional feedback on every document you write? If getting a second pair of eyes on your business writing isn’t possible, the next best thing is to run your work through an online readability tool.
Here, we review three free tools that can help you sharpen up your business writing skills. All of them give you a visual snapshot of how readable a piece of writing is.
They’ll not only help you write better. They’re also perfect to pull out if, like us, you often have to defend a clear-English rewrite of some illiterate executive’s porridgy prose.
Bookmark them today!
1. The Writer’s Diet
The Writer’s Diet is like having your own personal trainer who’ll tell you straight whether your sentences are flabby or fit. Run a piece of writing through this tool and it will rate aspects of your text on a scale from lean (yay!) to heart attack territory (yikes!).
Request a free full diagnosis and you’ll get a downloadable pdf with more detailed feedback and hints on how to tone up your text.
Here’s the tool’s diagnosis for that dire bit of biz babble from JJB Sports we recently discussed:
And here’s the doctor’s verdict on our toned-up rewrite:
The Writer’s Diet is actually aimed at academic writers. But most bad business writers seem to be trying to ape bad academic writers – by overusing nouns, for example. So it’s great for corporate types, too.
One caveat from the tool’s designer, Helen Sword: stylish writers have the confidence and skill to play with language in ways the test isn’t designed to assess. So even fabulous pieces of prose can be diagnosed as flabby or in heart attack territory.
But if you’re striving to be understood, rather than for literary effect, take Sword’s advice and fight the flab.
2. The Gunning-Fog Index
Developed in 1952 by Robert Gunning, an American businessman, The Gunning-Fog Index scores you on how readable your writing is. It does so by measuring the length of your words and sentences. From there, it calculates the number of years of formal education someone needs to understand your text.
A fog index of 12 means your reader will need the reading level of a US high school senior (around 18 years old). So if you’re aiming for a general audience, you need to get your score below 12 – and ideally under eight.
The tool also tells you how many major punctuation marks, such as full stops you’ve used, because short sentences are more readable than long ones.
And it highlights in blue any words of three syllables or more. Replace as many as you can with shorter synonyms and you’ll improve your score.
Here’s that terrible bit of business writing from JJB Sports:
We estimate you’d need to be on the verge of submitting your PhD to understand this text. And check out that sea of blue!
In contrast, here’s our simpler rewrite, which has a light sprinkling of blue and could be understood by someone who’s just hit their teens:
Since 1979, the Plain English Campaign has been fighting the war on jargon, gobbledygook and meaningless corporate drivel.
The organisation’s Drivel Defence tool is useful if you tend to write over-long sentences. It tells you instantly how many words each sentence contains (the figures in pink in the pictures below) and highlights in big blue letters your longest sentence.
For clear writing, you should aim to shorten any sentence over 24 words and keep most of your sentences under 20 words.
Before running your text through the tool, click the box that gives you the option to scan for simpler alternative words. This will highlight in red – and provide a simpler synonym for – any word listed in the Plain English Campaign’s A-Z of Alternative Words (pdf).
Again, here’s what that piece business writing from JJB Sports looks like.
Unfortunately, the tool won’t pick up on every nefarious neologism coined in the corporate world so it’s overlooked that crime against clarity that is “operationalising”. Also, the figures are slightly distorted because the tool has read the bullet point copy as one sentence.
Still, you get the picture when you compare the original to our simpler version. We’ve almost halved the figure for longest sentence and our text is free of red: