Freelance: Writing Content for Specific Reading Levels

writing for different reading levelsChances are, if you write content you’ve been asked to write for a specific reading level. And if you haven’t, you probably will. It’s important for freelancers to be able to match the style and tone their clients desire while meeting target reading levels. Read on to discover some tips and useful tools to help you achieve specific reading levels with your writing.

First things first – what do clients mean by reading level?

While there are other scoring systems out there, most of the time clients are referring to the Flesch-Kincaid, or FK, grade level score (which I’ll call the “FK score” to keep things simple). FK score is based on a variety of factors such as number of words, sentence length, complexity of words, and so on. These variables are entered into a formula, and the result is a grade-level score. The FK grade level ties to American school grade levels, and the FK score was initially designed to help educators and parents quickly choose appropriate, grade-level reading material for students. It has since been adopted for use in other areas to ensure content is accessible and audience appropriate.

write at 8th grade reading level for mainstream contentClients might also be referring to a Flesch score, which refers to reading ease. This score ranges from zero to 100 with higher scores indicating “easier” reading. The score is generally matched with a grade level. For example, a Flesch score of 30 or lower indicates college-level (or above) reading ease while a score of 100 indicates 5th grade or below.

According to research, content produced for the mainstream, consumer market should be written at about the 8th-grade reading level (FK score 8, Flesch reading ease 65). While it’s not especially difficult to write generally at this level, writing for different types of clients at this grade level can be challenging.

Why?

Consider the following:

writing at specific reading level for tech companiesLet’s say a tech company has hired you to write a short post about their product. They want to be sure the key concept – the product uses artificial intelligence to continuously learn from user behavior to boost clickthrough rates – is included.

Simple enough, you think.  

Then they add that they want you to write it at an 8th-grade reading level.

Still not too difficult, you think. Until you realize their keywords, “artificial intelligence” and “clickthrough rates,” are considered “hard to understand.” This means they’ll likely bump up the FK score by at least two grade levels.

There’s more.

Removing certain words affects the meaning of the product, something they won’t want you to do. For example, “continuously learns” from user behavior is different than “learns” from user behavior. The first implies the machine is always evaluating and making changes while with the second, it’s not clear. It could learn once a day, once a week, or once a month.

Where does that leave you?

To understand how to tackle the project, let’s evaluate the same sentence written and rewritten to try to achieve the 8th-grade target. writing and rewriting for specific grade level

Attempt 1: Powered by artificial intelligence, our product continuously learns from user behavior to significantly improve clickthrough rates. (FK score = 18.7)

Evaluation: I know, I know — 18.7. More than ten grade levels higher than our target for what seems like a fairly basic sentence. Here’s what’s triggering the master’s-level results – complexity in structure and language. The sentence is tagged as “long” and the descriptive clause is considered complex. In addition, our keywords are tagged as difficult to understand as is the word “significantly.”

Let’s try again, focusing only on structure…

Attempt 2: Artificial intelligence powers our product. This mean it continuously learns from user behavior to significantly improve clickthrough rates. (FK score = 14.1)

Evaluation: By writing the first sentence as two sentences – in other words, dumping the descriptive clause – we were able to reduce the reading level by four grades. Not bad! But we’re still way above our grade 8 target.

Let’s keep revising focusing on language…

Attempt 3: Artificial intelligence powers our product. This mean it’s always learning from user behavior. The result? Greatly improved clickthrough rates. (FK = 9.2)

Evaluation: Now we’re getting somewhere. And we’ve achieved it by ditching the two words that were causing a bump of five grade levels – “continuously” and “significantly.” We’ve used easier-to-understand synonyms for both of our challenge words. But we’re still not at the target grade level.

Let’s try one more time, thinking about an even better synonym…

Attempt 4: Artificial intelligence powers our product. This mean it’s always learning from user behavior. The result? A big improvement in clickthrough rates. (FK score = 8.4)

Evaluation: We’re in the zone! Using “big improvement” instead of “greatly improved” is what made the difference, here. And we avoided an adverb – bonus points!

Key Takeaways from the Rewrites

pay close attention to writing and reading level man with magnifying glassWriting for a mainstream, commercial audience when you’re writing B2B content or B2C content about complex topics isn’t always easy. It means paying attention close attention to sentence structure and word choice. Think: shorter sentences, simpler words.

It’s easy to carried away with lowering the reading level. But remember you shouldn’t sacrifice integral terms that influence meaning or keywords to reach the target level. In our example, we can’t get rid of “artificial intelligence” and “clickthrough rates.” The result is a slightly inflated FK score. You might find your client’s product names to be marked as “hard to understand.” Or specific keywords might lead to a boosted FK score.

Instead of a myopic focus on reading level, do you best while sticking to your client’s more pressing needs. If there’s an issue with a keyword or specific words they want included, let your client know. For example, I recently explained to a client that while the general content I produced was at the target grade level, their product names alone generated a two to three grade-level bump. They were okay with this result because the product names were an important aspect of the piece.

Keep in mind that you will rarely evaluate content on a sentence-by-sentence level. You big picture is more important for reading level writing than small picturewant to consider readability of the entire piece. Looking at the big picture has a significant effect on FK score. For example, in our above scenario we might look at an entire paragraph instead of the lone sentence. Since we’d explain “artificial intelligence” earlier in the content, we’d likely write “AI” everywhere else. Let’s look at how this changes our score.

Attempt 5: Artificial intelligence (AI) is a powerful tool. And AI powers our product. This mean it’s always learning from user behavior. The result? A big improvement in clickthrough rates. (FK = 6.8)

We’re now well into the target range, which will help us out with more complex words down the line. Hurray!

Why did our score change so much?

To understand this, you need to think about math (just a little, I promise!). The longer the overall content, the more words and sentences are being entered into the magic reading-level formula. Imagine if you had to shoot basketballs to get ranked from zero (terrible) to 100 (best player ever). If you only have one attempt to make the shot, it’s less likely you’ll score well. If you have 1000 attempts, you have more chances to improve your rank. And it gets better and better the more attempts you get.

Think of your word count as those attempts. Focus on achieving the target reading level overall for your word count. While sentence checks are helpful, don’t stress too much if you can’t avoid some complexity. Keep in mind the average for the entire piece or key sections.  

How do I check the reading level of my content?

tools for writing at specific reading levelsThere are a variety of ways to evaluate reading level. The most basic is to use the tool you (most likely) already have: Microsoft Word. MS Word offers an FK score through its “Review” tab. You’ll get the FK score, the Flesch reading ease core, and it will tell you the percentage of passive sentences. Not bad for quick checks. Just be sure to select the right settings to turn on these features.  

There are also free online tools you can use to get a little more information. For example, this readability test tool evaluates entered text for several readability scores, including FK score and Flesch reading ease. It gives you a narrative summary in addition to numeric values for six reading indices and six text statistics (e.g., number of words, number of complex words, etc.).

But free tools don’t give you specific feedback, such as which words rank as “hard to understand” or which sentences might be too long. If you’re trying to write at a specific level but struggling to meet your goal, you’ll want to see where your weak points are. In that case, think about paying for a more informative tool. Most of these tools are not expensive, and for professional writers the insights are worth the fees.

To help me, I use readable.io. And no, I’m not an affiliate. I’m sharing to help, not earn. At readablepro from readable.io is a great tool for working on writing at specific reading levelsfour dollars a month, readable.io is an affordable tool that gives lots of information to help shift your readability score. I found after using it just a few times, I started changing my writing to meet different targets faster. Readable.io provides you with both an overall score from A to F as well as a variety of specific reading-level scores. Pretty cool.

Even cooler?

It gives feedback on areas and words that trigger higher reading levels. And it evaluates for tone (e.g., formal vs. conversational), sentiment, text quality (e.g., number of cliches used), a variety of text statistics and facts (e.g., longest sentence, reading time, speaking time). You can even request evaluations for things like keyword density and gender analysis!

The Bottom Line

Writing at lower reading levels isn’t easy. In fact, it can be harder than writing at higher reading levels. It takes attention and practice to reach specific targets while maintaining the style your client demands. If your client hasn’t specified a reading level? It’s still useful to periodically see how your writing scores. Remember: your target should be FK 8 for a general audience. Knowing your trigger points makes it easier to adjust as needed. Good luck!

And just for fun – the paragraph above received an FK score of 6.9 and a Flesch reading ease score of 62.5. 

Kaecey signature contact me for great content writing

Advertisements

My new chapbook, Pixelated Tears, is published!

I’m excited to share that my chapbook, Pixelated Tears, is now available from Prolific Press. Here’s the postcard:

Chapbook Announcement - Pixelated Tears

And here’s the press release that went out this weekend:

https://www.prlog.org/12734824-prolific-press-has-published-pixelated-tears-by-kaecey-mccormick.html?embed

Kaecey signature 14494858_1052448421529899_6375380712797709368_n

Writing Prompt: Using Facebook to Craft Poems (and other writing)

facebookHello.  My name is Kaecey, and I’m a social media Luddite. 

Though I stay connected to this century social media for work, when it comes to my personal life I barely use Facebook, didn’t want a Twitter account until the Writer’s Digest October Platform Challenge got me connecting, and finally tried Google+ for the first time.  Today.

So how can I write a post that utilizes Facebook and the linchpin? Moreover, Facebook and poetry don’t seem like two entities that go together – at least not from the perspective of using Facebook to write poetry. What gives?

Simple.  I’m writing this post because I am a fan of taking advantage of whatever works to generate creativity and get poems (or fiction or any writing ideas) out of the ether and onto the page.  And I promise you – if you fully execute this technique, you will end up with a poem.  Or character.  Or beginning of a story… you get the picture.

So what is this Facebook writing technique?  

It’s fun, it’s easy, and you can do it even if you don’t have a Facebook account.  Trust me.

First, scroll through your list of FB friends until you come across names from your childhood of people you haven’t really kept up with over the years.  If you don’t have any FB friends that reach back that far, settle for FB friends that you are merely acquaintances with in real life – the point is to find people you know, but people you don’t know well. You want to be surprised.

Second, visit the pages of these FB friends and look at their most recent post.  Ideally, the first page you visit is the one you’ll use, but if it really doesn’t work move down the list.

Third, using whatever this person posted as your inspiration, brainstorm words and phrases that immediately come to mind.  Try to incorporate sensory language if possible, but stay true to whatever pops into your head.

Fourth, write a poem (or story) inspired by the FB friend’s post and your brainstormed list.  It can be a poem in any form or style. It can be a flash fiction. A short story. It can even be the start of your own memoir. The point is to WRITE.

If you’re not on Facebook, you can search old emails, greeting cards and letters, or use another social media source (like Twitter or Google+) to accomplish the same result.

I first thought of this technique when I randomly clicked on the Facebook page of a childhood friend with whom I had not had any contact other than to accept her Friend request years ago.  I was shocked and saddened to learn that she had just lost her father.  Her most recent post happened to be picture from her childhood of her at about preschool age sitting on her dad’s lap.  They were reading a book together, and the caption read, “Missing my dad today.”  The photo was grainy and the clothes were standard late seventies/early eighties plaid.  Her dad was sporting some seriously impressive sideburns, and my friend’s cheeks were bright red, the way kids’ cheeks get after playing outside in the snow.

I was overcome with emotion and wonder, so I started writing down ideas and words that popped into my head as I gazed at the picture.  And those words evolved into a poem.

If you give it a try, let me know!  I’d love to hear if it works for you.  And if you have other Facebook-inspired writing ideas, please share!

Writing Prompt: What to Write When Nothing Comes

Maybe you’ve been lucky and never drawn a blank when sitting down to write. But if bored_by_publicdomainpictures-netyou’re like me, you’ve sat. And sat. And looked up prompts. And doodled. And refreshed your coffee. Or tea. Or water. Or whiskey. You’ve told yourself, “Go!” then stared numbly at the screen. So you surfed the net, checked and deleted email. Answered the phone. Did the dishes. Dreamed up fanciful and creative menus for your family that you’ll never make. And decided to go to bed early (or late).

And promised yourself that tomorrow you’ll be able to get something down. trick_by_publicdomainreview.org

If this is sounding a little too familiar, I have a trick that helps when you find yourself thinking, “I have nothing to write about.” I’m going to describe it as it relates to poetry, but it could be used with any genre. I have found that when I’m stuck with nothing for my fiction, writing poetry can help shake things loose.

Okay, ready for the trick? Here it is:

Write the opposite.

I know, I know. You’re thinking, “What? This gal has really lost it. Write the opposite of what?!

Let me explain…

Take a poem – any poem. It can be one you’ve written, it can be a classic, it can be one you love, or one you hate. Go through it line by line and write the opposite of whatever the sentiment is in that line.

Here’s an example using Robert Frost’s “The Road Not Taken:”

woods_by_publicdomain


Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,
And sorry I could not travel both ….

To write the opposite, I could do something like this:

woods2_by_publicdomain
In the purpled woods, two roads collided 

and glad was I to find the path so clear ….

That is an off-the-cuff example that could use (a lot) of work. Regardless, it demonstrates what I mean. At least I hope it does!

To complete the exercise, I would go through every line. If all of sudden in the middle of this task something sparks and I’m inspired, I might drop the exercise and run with my new idea. If not, I’d keep at it, line by line. Then revise and make changes, look for better words and better imagery.

And at the end of the day, I’ll have a poem. At the very least, I’ll have made good use of the day and worked my creative muscles. Writing the opposite it harder than it sounds. It forces you to be creative, look for ways to describe emotions, places, and people. And it can result in some phenomenal poetry!

Don’t believe me? Give it a try! And let me know what you think.

I’m curious – what do you do when the muse is silent? I’d love to hear other tips and tricks! 

Writing Prompt: An Exercise in Perspective

public-domain-dragonOne of the best things about being writers is that we get to play with reality. When we craft fiction, poetry, and even creative nonfiction, we can bend and twist the boundaries of our identity, the identities of our speakers and characters, and even the world around us.

Of course, there are varying degrees of reality contorting. One could tell the first-person account of the life of a three-winged dragon in the fictional land of Ingatek, or one could write a poem that relays a factual account of an observation but simply tell it from the perspective of a different person.

“Playing” like this can be fun, exciting, and it works the creative muscle in our writers’ brains that makes us stronger writers. Even hardcore nonfiction writers can benefit from the cross training taking on different perspectives provides. Being able to see the world and events from another’s point of view forces us to notice different details, make different interpretations of events and relationships, and possibly reconsider our own place in the scheme of things.

So today I offer a simple writing exercise in perspective. Use it as a quick warm-up for the day’s writing, or take it and run with it as far as your imagination (and time) will allow.public-domain-child

Exercise:Consider a locale you frequently visit – it could be the library, a bar or restaurant, a park, or even a neighbor’s house. Create a list of at least twenty-five descriptive words associated with that particular place. Write fast and try to complete your list in 3 minutes or less. Using your list, write a short story or poem about being in the place from the perspective of a young child. Keep in mind appropriate vocabulary, how children relate to adults and other children, how a child’s breadth of experience (or lack thereof) might impact what/how he or she experiences in the same place as adult. And have fun with it! You never know where a writing exercise might lead…

Do you often write from different perspectives? Is there a specific process you use when “getting into character” that helps your writing feel more authentic? I’d love to hear about your method in the comments! And if you try the writing exercise, let me know how it goes!

NaNoWriMo: Create-a-Book-Cover Tutorial

NaNo-Shield-Logo-WebIt’s October. Which means next month is November. And for many writers, November = NaNoWriMo, or for the uninitiated, National Novel Writing Month.

This year, I’m busy as usual. I’m hosting a write-in every Friday on top of my weekly Shut Up and Write meeting. I’m also serving as Cupertino Poet Laureate, which means I’m teaching several workshops and attending various events… on top of my usual freelance writing work and my work at the local community college.

Did I mention I have four kids and husband? And am hosting Thanksgiving?

So with this busy schedule, I need all the help I can get … and that extends to writing motivation. Little things can get me pumped when I’m feeling intimidated, so this morning instead of focusing on the writing, I thought I’d focus on something easier:

Creating a book cover for NaNoWriMo.

I have no plan when it comes to NaNo. I don’t plot – as much as I want to be the writer with the outline, character sketches, and full-blown plan for novel writing, I am a pantser through and through. In fact, I don’t have a clue as to what this year’s NaNo book will be about. Or at least I didn’t until I started making a cover. It’s one of my tricks up my very tricksy sleeves. I force myself to complete the first step, and the rest follows. Eventually. And if I change my mind or the Muses gift me with another story? I’ll change the cover. Easy as Thanksgiving pie.

So for anyone who would like a nudge in the pants(er), here is a quick and painless way to create a NaNoWriMo book cover to display with pride (or any other emotion you choose) on your dashboard…

(1) Log in to Canva.

Canva is a free, online site that comes fully loaded with easy-to-use tools that make it possible for everyone (well, maybe not my mother but she still can’t figure out her email) to design graphics, presentations, social media bling, headers, buttons, and yes, NaNo book covers. For free. Just register with your email address and you’re good to go!

(2) From your Canva dashboard, click “Use custom dimensions” and enter 230 x 300 pixels. It will look something like this:

canva-step-2
You’ll then end up on the layout page with a blank slate, like this:

canva-step-2-and-a-half

(3) From here, you can get as creative as you’d like OR keep it as simple as you like.

Simple cover – For a crisp, clean cover, simply add a background color and lettering, like so:

canva-step-3

All I did here was select existing text from the left sidebar and edit it. For the author’s name, I used “Add a little bit of body text.” You can change the colors, size, etc., by simply selecting the element. Playing around and experimenting is the best way to find what you like.

Fancier cover – Or add photos (choose from free stock photos, pay $1 to use protected images, or upload your own photos), graphics, fancy fonts from your personal library, and other elements. Here’s an example using a free stock photo:

canva-step-3-and-a-half
I selected “Elements” from the left menu bar, picked “Free photos,” then entered “train” in the search box. To make the photo fit the cover, I dragged the corners until the image filled the 230 x 300 pixel template. Then I added text as above.

(4) After you’ve played around and are happy with the cover, click “Download” from the top menu bar and save the file as a JPG or PNG, the forms compatible with NaNo.

canva-step-4

(5) Finally, all that’s left is to visit your author dashboard over at NaNoWriMo and upload the cover!

I promise this is a very easy process and was actually faster than the time it took to write this post! I created my 2018 NaNoWriMo (working) cover this morning. And while I didn’t know going in what my book would be about, the creative process got the juices flowing and an idea sparked. Now let’s hope it catches!

Are you participating in NaNoWriMo? Let me know if you create a NaNoWriMo cover! And if you have a different technique or use different software, please feel free to share in the comment section!