If you use an SEO plug in like Yoost, you probably have been annoyed by a little red readability icon telling you your Flesch Reading Ease score is to high. The Flesch Reading Ease Readability Formula tells you how hard it is to read your post. Complicated writing comes easily to a lawyer. But can your readers keep up?
Lawyers are Bad at Readability
As lawyers, we are bad at writing for the average reader. We have far more education than many of our potential customers. The training we receive expands our vocabulary (often in Latin), and can often teach us to write in the most confusing way possible. It has only been in the last decade or two that the idea of “plain writing” has made its way to law schools’ research and writing classes.
All of this training means that lawyers are great readers. We are able to wade through dense text and intense legalese. We can pick out the important points from long winding paragraphs. We know the importance, and lack thereof, of long lists of synonyms that show up in laws and contracts. We are not deterred by boring content and can push through to find the information we need.
Lawyers are not normal.
Unless you practice legal malpractice defense, your clients will not be lawyers. They won’t have the same training on how to read legal documents, contracts, and statutes. That’s what they pay you for.
When you are writing for the average reader you need to remember that they need you to translate legalese to layperson. You will have to break it down for them, not just when there is jargon involved. You need to write simply so they will understand.
The Flesch Reading Ease Readability Formula Puts a Number On Your Writing
Even once you know your writing style is too complex it can be hard to gauge how a particular blog post measures up. That’s where the Flesch Reading Ease Reabability Formula can help. It is considered one of the oldest and most accurate ways to measure the complexity of writing. Rudolph Flesch developed the formula in 1948 as part of the Plain English Movement. It is designed to rate any piece of writing for complexity based on the length of sentences and syllables per word. Here’s the math:
RE = 206.835 – (1.015 x ASL) – (84.6 x ASW)
ASL stands for Average Sentence Length, and ASW means Average number of Syllables per Word. Once these numbers are plugged into the formula, it results in a Readability Ease score (RE) between 1 and 100. The lower the number, the easier the text is for the average reader to understand.
So How Low Do You Need to Go?
An RE number is only useful if you understand what it means for your potential clients. The scale breaks down like this:
- 90-100 : Very Easy
- 80-89 : Easy
- 70-79 : Fairly Easy
- 60-69 : Standard
- 50-59 : Fairly Difficult
- 30-49 : Difficult
- 0-29 : Very Confusing
To put that in perspective, a 90-100 translates to a 5th grade reading level. 8th graders can usually understand a text with an RE of 60-70. Without a college degree it can be difficult to understand anything under 30.
(Don’t have a Reability plugin? You can use this readability calculator to determine your RE.)
Litigators are taught that the average jury has an 8th grade education. So if that jury represents your clients’ peers, you may want to use the same benchmark for your writing. If you tend to represent more sophisticated clients, you may be able to get away with a lower number.
No one is perfect when it comes to easy writing. This post, for example, clocks in at 71.5. But when I am writing about a particular court decision, my score is often in the 40s. Some legalese, even when fully explained, can push your score higher than your goal. But by keeping your sentences short and your word choice simple, you can help your readers grasp what you are saying and show off your expertise.
Lisa Schmidt is a writer for Legal Linguist in Ferndale, Michigan. She provides blogs and web content for lawyers and small businesses. If you need help creating highly readable content, contact Legal Linguist to schedule a meeting.