What Does “Readability” Actually Mean?

//What Does “Readability” Actually Mean?

What Does “Readability” Actually Mean?

With apps like Hemmingway and Grammarly, even people with no written English skills can craft copy that passes a “readability” check, but what does this phrase actually mean? In everyday life, it simply refers to how easy and enjoyable a piece of text is for somebody to read but in digital marketing, it has a slightly different definition. In this article, we discuss the finer points of readability in the context of writing for an online audience in the 21st century.

Not Everybody is a Native English Speaker

For those who are classically trained or well-practiced in writing content such as fiction, opinion-based journalism and editorial pieces for broadsheet newspapers, long flowing sentences and complex words with a higher lexicographical score are standard practice. Unfortunately, this style of writing does not always translate very effectively when it comes to marketing to an online audience. For those who do not speak English as a native language, complexity and nuance can be difficult to understand, especially in something like a marketing-based blog post. This is a sweeping generalisation and one that is not necessarily true in every case, but it is a criticism that is frequently levelled at writers from the UK, USA, Australia, and Canada. Clarity, simplicity, and a style of writing that is essentially extremely basic in its essence are often the preferred tropes of readability checkers. For international audiences, this simple if rather lifeless style means that your reader is more likely to finish the piece, no matter which country they are reading from.

Reading and Comprehension Skills Vary Dramatically

For most people in the USA and the UK, a standard level of English comprehension means understanding how to identify verbs, nouns, adjectives, simple sentences, and paragraphs. Those who go beyond this can usually detect subtext, metaphors, similes, and other literary devices that can give a piece of text personality. The level of comprehension skills audiences display can vary dramatically, and this means the idea of readability becomes subjective. For example, an article that is aimed at business professionals in the world of finance is likely to contain numerous complex words and phrases that apps such as Hemmingway and Grammarly may consider “too difficult” for the average internet user. Though this might be true, in this instance, it is the complexity and specificity of the information that is the driving appeal of the piece. Conversely, if a piece of text is aimed at a very wide audience, perhaps from multiple backgrounds and of varying ages, anything that makes the message unclear or ambiguous in favour of creativity will be considered a negative thing.

Readability Depends on the Purpose of the Text

The purposes of texts is something that is taught in English lessons in the UK and across the world. Unfortunately, in the world of online content, this is something that can be overlooked, especially when elements such as keyword density and simplicity are emphasised over an organic authorial voice. A piece of marketing copy for a website landing page should be simple and easy to read, but it should also contain enough personality to encapsulate a brand’s voice or company’s ethos. This can be done by paying attention to tone and style. If you are writing an instruction manual or a set of guidelines for a company’s office cleaning schedule, things will be a little different. Factual, straightforward and above all, clear explanation will be the most relevant approach here. Though both types of text will be equally “readable” in real terms, no matter how they are presented, what really matters is how the audience perceive the information they are given.

Clarity and Creativity Should Not be Mutually Exclusive

By this, we mean that it should be possible to write a piece of text that includes both creative flair and the requisite keywords that will help with things like SEO. One of the main issues with apps like Hemmingway, especially when they are used as a replacement for a human editor, is that they instinctively remove a lot of the creative elements of the text in favour of simplicity. It can be a challenge, especially to those without well-developed language skills or experience of writing content professionally, but it is possible to create work that sounds as if it has been written by somebody who is engaged with the subject they are talking about, while still communicating a clear message.

Many Classic Authors are Considered “Unreadable”

This is probably the most amusing point about the modern phenomenon of readability. When you paste sections of classic literature or even modern best sellers in to Grammarly or Hemmingway, they are usually interpreted as “poor quality” or “unreadable” pieces of text. This is obviously far from the truth in reality and the millions of people who have read and enjoyed these books will confirm this. Though it is important to strike a balance, using some creative flair and challenging the reader slightly is not always a negative thing. Flat, lifeless, basic sounding copy isn’t the way to establish yourself online and though you may score highly in terms of the artificial intelligence definition “readability,” the chances are that you will bore a lot of people and even drive some away. Though people expect different things online, reducing the language we use to the most basic form possible is simply a way of removing any sense of personality or human emotion from the things we read on the internet. Yes, clarity is important, but creativity is essential, too.


Ultimately, readability is simply a modern marketing term that has no real meaning to people who are outside of the sphere of work. Providing that your copy makes sense and is free from grammatical errors, it can and will perform well. Remember that although search engine algorithms read, so do people and it is the humans that you are relying on to engage with your content. Balance is key and though nobody is expecting content that reads like iambic pentameter, adhering to the principals of “readability” without using any of your own judgement is not a good strategy.

2020-08-07T01:11:51-05:00August 7th, 2020|