Five Maples’ Fundraising Blog

Meet the editor who will evaluate the readability of your fundraising letter in 6 seconds – for free.

I bet you didn’t know that Microsoft Word will automatically calculate the readability and grade level of your fundraising letter. Or annual report. Or newsletter.

I didn’t either, until I got Tom Ahern’s recent e-newsletter in my in-box. (I’d point you to it, but it doesn’t seem to be posted on his web site yet). Tom explains how to use this tool, and how much it can help your writing.

You know that keeping language simple and easy to read is the goal of all copywriters. But that’s not what we are taught in school or learn at work. Our communications are muddied with long sentences, big words and ‘corporate speak’. Want busy donors to read and understand your letter? Write at the 8th grade level. Why? It’s because they scan the mail (and every other communication), so your message has to be quick and easy to grasp.

To quote Tom: It’s not a question of ‘dumbing down’. It’s a question of speeding up.

Microsoft Word uses two common readability measures developed by Flesch and Kincaid.

The Flesch Reading Ease and the Flesch-Kincaid Grade Level tests both use average syllable count and average sentence length to calculate the score. The meaning of the grade level score is obvious. Your goal is an 8th grade reading level. The meaning of the Reading Ease score is less obvious. What you need to know is that higher is better. You can take the average score of 65 for Reader’s Digest and 52 for Time Magazine as goals.

How to turn on the readability tests in Microsoft Office 2007

First, click on the Microsoft Word button in the upper left of your Word screen to get the drop down menu:

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Then select the Word Options button down at the lower right to open the Options dialog box:

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Select Proofing on the left side menu bar. In the proofing dialog box, make sure that Check grammar with spelling and Show readability statistics are selected.

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How to check readability in Microsoft Office 2007

When you are ready to check your document, go to the Review Tab on the ribbon at the top of Word, and click on Spelling and Grammar. Work through any spelling and grammar suggestions that Word offers (like ignoring the suggestion to correct the sentence fragment in the first paragraph of this blog post).

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Once you click Close, the readability statistics will appear:

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Now that you know how to get the readability statistics, what do you do to improve readability?

Look for:

  • Polysyllabic words. Ooops – I meant to say, long words.
  • The words ‘and’ and ‘or’. They’ll often show you where to break one sentence into two.
  • Any sentence that takes more than one full line…it might be too long.
  • Adjectives and adverbs. They creep into everything. Ask about each one: is it really necessary?

Here’s an example of what I mean. The first draft of the first sentence in this post read:

I bet you didn’t know that Microsoft Word will automatically calculate the readability and grade level of your fundraising letter, annual report or newsletter.

Here’s the evaluation – it’s not so good.

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So I broke up the sentence and got rid of the big adverb. See the improvement:

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Of course I don’t check each sentence as I write. Do it when you’ve got a draft you like. Then go back through the draft, chopping, dicing and replacing.

And don’t forget to check your draft against my Fundraising Letter Check List. But first you have to download it!

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