There are a lot of things that about writing you can’t automate. But there’s also a few that you can.
So far, no cool robot is going to help you form the structure of your argument. And while you can get the internet to generate your metal band’s name or corporate gibberish boilerplate, you probably can’t get it to generate a nice, snappy title. But what can you do without human assistance? Well, you can see if what you’ve written passes a readability check.
But I don’t want to start throwing readability checkers out there without explaining them a bit and helping us get on the same page.
Before we start…
Readability checkers apply formulas to your writing. Those checkers then spit out feedback, which will help you assess how easy it will be for people to read your text. There are a number of formulas these checkers may use, but the most popular and well-known one is the Flesch Reading Ease Formula (or the related Flesch-Kincade Grade Level Formula). Most of these formulas use an algorithm that analyzes words per sentence and syllables per word. Many of them also rate the text by assigning it a corresponding U.S. grade level, meaning that a student in that grade could be expected to understand it.
This assigning of a grade level is useful but perhaps a bit misguided. Many people wind up feeling pride when their writing comes back as grade 11 or 12. You just got the top score for smart writing, right?
Those folks will be pretty disappointed to hear that, no, in the world of readability, you want to be scoring way lower. Grade 6–8 is ideal if you’re aiming for the general public. But if you scored a grade 12, I know it’s hard to want to make that change. After all, who wants to feel like they’re dumbing down their prose so much that increasingly younger children can read it?
But don’t let your pride override your realpolitik reasons for writing. Easy-to-read content is way more enjoyable and shareable.
The way I would think of it is this: your main goal in writing should be to communicate. It should be to express your novel thoughts, guidance, or opinions in a way that’s delivered clearly and with little distraction. Your ideas are the value. It should be about what you say, not how you say it.
When you use readability checkers with an eye to improving your writing, it’s not about ways to dumb things down. It’s about getting rid of all the complications that can drive a wedge between your reader and what you have to share with them.
So, with that being covered, here are my favorite free readability checkers, starting with number one.
Yoast is a WordPress plugin that assesses SEO and readability. And let’s just get the main con out of the way—you can’t use it unless you’re writing a WordPress draft. But that’s pretty much the only downside.
Yoast is my favorite because, though it lacks nuance, it gives you very clear feedback on where you’re at and what you need to do. Other readability checkers might tell you “Grade 10,” and it’s mostly up to you to assess whether that’s good or bad. But Yoast has a colored dot that changes in real time as you type: red for bad, orange for needs a few things, and green for good. It uses the Flesch Ease of Reading formula for this, but you don’t need to worry too much about how things work under the hood.
Yoast is a great plugin for busy people that just want things to be good and then to go on with life. It’ll tell you exactly what’s hurting your readability and highlight how to fix it. And it assesses way more than syllables per word. Yoast will tell you if you lack enough transitions. It will highlight the places you use passive voice. It even shows you where it thinks you should break up a large chunk of text.
If you want dynamic feedback as you type and to have your problem areas highlighted for you—or if you just want to follow directions and make a light go green without getting a major education on how to evaluate your own writing—Yoast is amazing. I highly recommend it.
2. Word Count Tools
As an editor, I’ve loved Word Count Tools for a variety of reasons. First, there’s the obvious: it’ll give you a word count (and a sentence count, and a character count, and a syllable count). But it will also point out your most used words, including two-word and three-word combos—great for keyword planning. And it will show your longest sentence.
But you’re here for the readability. And so is Word Count Tools; it has just about all of the formulas I know of incorporated.
You can take all these formulas together and decide how you think the post is working. The only downside is that Word Count Tools doesn’t make any judgment calls for you. You’ll have to decide on your own what grade level you’re going after, and you won’t get any custom-tailored help lowering the score like you do with Yoast.
Other than that, Word Count Tools is great. Oh, and one more thing. Many other free readability checkers limit your word count. That means you can only check out 1,000 words or maybe 3,000 words, and if you have something more than that, you’re out of luck. Not so with Word Count Tools. Paste to your heart’s content.
3. Hemingway Editor
The Hemingway Editor has a beautiful, colorful interface that shows you exactly where it has problems. My only gripe is that it doesn’t give the why.
That being said, the Hemingway Editor is a lovely place to go and type and get real-time feedback. If you’re not as concerned with stats and are just interested in seeing places you might be able to improve, I like this one.
An Unexpected Bonus Place
MS Word isn’t free, but if you already have it (as most of us do), there’s a bonus: you have access to the two Flesch scores. You just have to know how to enable it.
If you go to your MS Word options and click “proofing,” you’ll see an option for “show readability statistics.” If you check that box, your readability scores will show after you run spellcheck. Not the easiest or most intuitive, thing, I know. I’d almost rather just post the text in Word Count Tools or the Hemingway Editor than go to all the trouble. But since so many of us do our composing in Word, it may be something you find useful.
Automate Your Writing as Much as Possible
You folks are techies, so you know that automation lets you focus on other things. Why not automate the assessment of your readability? (After all, assessing our own writing is something we human beings are terrible at, anyway. We need all the outside feedback we can get!)
I’d advise you do even more than run a check, though. Pay real attention to what effects your changes have on your score, and synthesize that. You’ll be surprised at how much feedback you learn to incorporate naturally after awhile.