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Readability Score – Pros & Cons

Posted by ClickHelp TeamClickHelp Teamin Technical Writing on 7/24/2018 — 4 minute read

Good or bad?

What is a readability score? It is a score you get based on a set of algorithms used to figure out how readable a text is.
Of course, everyone who creates content wants it to be easy to read. This is especially true for technical writers, their job is to create solid comprehensive content.

Although there is no real proof of any SEO effect readability scores have, what they can do is decrease the bounce rate, that is for sure.
Do readability scores always work? How reliable is this approach? Let’s try and find out.


Outdated Research Data

The idea of readability comes from the beginning of the 20th century. Professors were trying to figure out a better way of teaching children to read, so, they took a dictionary with frequency of word usage and, basically, started teaching the most common words first. It became possible to assign some quantitative value to a text.
Readability scores serve a different purpose, nevertheless, the algorithm that recognizes easy, widely-used words and ‘vocabulary words’ is still there. The simpler the words are – the higher score the text gets.

Talking about old times – there are hundreds of readability scores, and many of them are based on outdated and old research. This is the first reason why readability scores can be unreliable.
Language is constantly evolving. New words appear weekly if not daily, it is very hard to keep up with this process.
Plus, if we take into consideration some very specific professional fields, there can be a plethora of words no readability score will find appropriate. As a result, technical documentation for such fields won’t pass the test successfully.

An old bookshelf with a ladder

Forget About Individuality

Readability scores have formal requirements. They do not care about an individual style of an author.
Many texts are getting lower scores based on, for example, sentence length. But, we all understand that, for some authors, longer sentences can be part of their writing style, or, length can be specific for the field the text belongs to.

Contracts, agreements, and a lot of other documents quite often feature long complex sentences so that each sentence stores a finished idea or statement not to cause confusion.

No Way Of Knowing If The Content Is Useful

I don't know

How can a machine understand whether the text is informative and comprehensive? Well, it can’t.
One of the formal checks a text needs to pass is the number of terms and ‘dictionary words’. The more terms you have in a text, the less likely it will look decent for an algorithm readability-wise.

But there are texts that are meant to have terms in them. Technical documentation often does.
It is not the quantity of terms that matters, it is how well they are explained, and how ready the potential readers are to face this level of complexity. Unfortunately, this is not taken into account either.


Readability Scores Provide Real Ways To Improve Content

Sometimes it is hard to wrap your head around what makes a text difficult to read. Readability scores can help out with this.
For example, readability checks can point out that you don’t have enough heading levels in your text and, therefore, the document structure suffers.
By the way, here’s what you can do to make your titles more readable – follow capitalization rules described in this blog post.

Another check that can be done – the ratio of active/passive verbs. After this check is completed, you can go through the results and fix all the excessive passive constructions.
Be mindful that using passive voice is not always bad, there are certain situations when it is more preferable.

As we have mentioned above, there are documents that are meant to be complex and full of terms. But it doesn’t mean they can’t be re-worked.
Technical writers are always aware of their target audience, and their goal is to create user manuals that can be understood by the majority of readers.
Let’s take the medical field as an example. User manuals of this kind will most likely have quite a few terms. Still, it is crucial that they are understood by the hospital personnel. People’s lives are at stake here. It might be a good idea to get a readability score for such documents in order to work on them later.

Another type of documents that needs to have a high score are user agreements. There are many jokes about people ignoring them. Just click ‘I agree’ and that’s it.
And, honestly, we would love to know what was that we had agreed to, but such agreements are very often impossible to read if you are not a lawyer.
So, they too can get readability checked and fixed. Readability scores can point out the most obvious issues to be solved.

A document and an ink pen

Readability Scores Provide Different Checks

Readability scores are based on formal requirements. There is no way around it. But, the good thing is – there are multiple checks within one tool.
This means that the text analysis can be quite deep and thorough depending on how many checks are being performed at a time. And, you can choose a score based on what kind of checks suite your specifics better.


In this article, we’ve provided you with the most obvious pros and cons of readability scores. Should you adopt this service in your documentation team? That’s up to you. Although, we highly recommend giving readability scores a try.

Good Luck with your technical writing career!
ClickHelp Team
Author, host and deliver documentation across platforms and devices

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