Do Content Marketers Need to Know Their Flesch-Kincaid Score?

Straightforward exposition entices additional positive behavior. (That’s terrible.)

Simple writing converts better. (Pretty good.)

Short words sell good. (Too much, too much! Pull back!)

Content marketers, if you want your sales copy to generate more leads, it needs to be simple. It has to be good, it has to be interesting, and most of all, it has to be simple.

I would also argue it needs to be interesting, but that’s for a different article. Plus, there’s no software that can really measure that, although Google’s Time On Site and bounce rate stats may be a step in that direction.

As Neil Patel wrote on the Content Marketing Institute,

When users don’t like your content, Google doesn’t either. It works like this. A user accesses your website and decides (in a few seconds) whether she likes it. If she doesn’t like it, she bounces. Google records this information – short visit, then departure – for future reference.

Another user does the same thing – quick visit; then bounce. Another user does the same thing. And another.

Google gets the idea. Your website isn’t satisfying users. They aren’t engaging with it.

Google decides that your website doesn’t need to be ranking as high, and you start to slip in the Search Engine Result Pages.

So if you want your content to be accessible, it needs to be easy to read. If it’s easier to read, people are more likely to stick around for more than a few seconds.

There are plenty of other factors to consider — page layout, use of sub-heads, use of white space — but the number one factor for a readable, accessible page is the simplicity of the language.

Content Marketers, Know Thy Flesch-Kincaid Score

If you want to know whether your writing is simple or not, you need to know your Flesh-Kincaid score. Specifically, your Flesch-Kincaid Grade Level Formula.

This is the score that represents the readability of a piece of text at a U.S. grade level, so it’s easier for teachers and parents to know how hard or easy something is to read. It basically matches up to the grade reading level required to understand the text. If you get a Flesch-Kincaid score of 8, your reader needs to be at an 8th grade reading level to understand it.

Hunter S. Thompson, Miami Bookfair International, 1988I checked out a few different writing samples to compare their Flesch-Kincaid Grade Levels.

Most mainstream newspapers are written at a 6th grade reading level, USA today notwithstanding. Other USA Today stories I checked ran between 10th and 13th grade, thanks to complex and long sentence structures, not overly complex words. That suggests problems with editing, not word choice. And I’ve found that most business writing clocks in at a 7th and 8th grade reading level

It’s not that our readers are stupid, or only have an 8th grade reading level, it’s that people don’t want to put a lot of mental bandwidth into deciphering more complex and convoluted articles. They don’t want to slog through a complex, jargon-filled multi-syllabic narrative. They want to read something easy.

And if your content is easy to read, they’re going to read it. If it’s not, they won’t.

How to Measure Your Flesch-Kincaid Score

There are a few ways you can measure your Flesch-Kincaid score. Microsoft Word users have that functionality built right in, so it’s easy to find. (Check the Show readability statistics box in your Spelling and Grammar preferences.)

For Apple users, use the Hemingway app, which you can use to identify not only your grade level, but the number of adverbs, uses of passive voice, and sentences that are hard to read and very hard to read (like this one). You can use the Hemingway app on their website, but I bought the $19.99 version on the Apple store. (It’s available for Windows as well.)

The problem with the Hemingway app is that they don’t give you decimalized grade levels though. If you want that extra accuracy, you can use the Readability Test Tool by WebPageFX. That’s the tool I used to get the scores above. My other complaint about the Hemingway app is that it doesn’t ignore html text; the Readability Test Tool does.

Content marketers, if you want your readers to stick around and read your work, it needs to be easy. Try to keep it at a 7th grade reading level or lower. That means concise words, succinct sentences, and compressed paragraphs. (That’s terrible.)

Sorry, I mean short words, short sentences, and short paragraphs. (Ah, much better.)

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Five Lazy Words To Cut From Your Marketing Copy

Many marketers suck their readers into the bog of humdrum with over-used words and industry jargon, hoping no one will notice they’re just coasting on properly spelled words and grammatical sentences. It’s a sign of writing laziness to trot out the same old phrases and buzzwords, using them just one more time, in the hopes of getting out of yet another copywriting jam.

These words aren’t even buzzwords anymore. They’ve had the buzz driven right out of them. They’re words that every good copywriter must stop using if they want to stand out from the rest of the crowd.


Take what you need sign taped to a telephone poleNeeds is the marketing equivalent of “stuff.” It’s so overused, government agencies are going to start using it. That’s nearly as bad as when your mom joined Facebook.

  • Check Teacher’s Pet for all your back to school needs.
  • Steve’s Auto Parts has all your automotive repair needs.
  • Visit Cackling Larry’s for all your old-timey gold prospecting needs!

This is the cardinal sin of copywriting. Never, ever say “needs” in your marketing copy. If you have to, torpedo the entire paragraph and rewrite it. If you can’t think of another word, switch careers.


“Solutions” fill “needs.”

Need I say more?


“Storytelling” took off soon after the phrase “content marketing” did. And as the content marketing industry has become populated by the creative writing set, the word has become overused, even if the method has not.

I won’t go into the problem of blog posts written by “storytellers” that look less like stories and more like school papers or technical manuals, except to say this: if you call yourself a storyteller, tell stories. That’s different from Articlewriting, Blogposting, and Instructionexplaining.

Content marketers, stop saying you’re doing storytelling. Not everything is a story. You’re a writer, so write things. That’s a timeless, all-encompassing word that’s not in danger of becoming trendy overused jargon.

You’re not a storyteller unless you go to festivals wearing a black turtleneck and tell stories in that funny poetry-reading voice.


Content-rich, visually-rich, keyword-rich. It used to be an effective word, but it’s been so overused, it’s eye-rolling-rich. We say it when we should just say “full of” or “better.” But I’m even starting to see it to mean “meets the barest definition of.” As in “this book is word-rich.”

Why not say heavy, appealing, replete, full, packed, stocked, gorged, or my personal favorite, chockablock.

If I can get anyone to use the phrase “keyword-chockablock,” I will have lived a complete life.


That’s then-Prince Willem-Alexander at the 2008 Beijing Olympics, going for the gold.Content is king. SEO is king. Social media is king.

The phrase “_____ is king” is as ubiquitous as those damn Keep Calm and blah blah something clever blah t-shirts. Someone’s going to say it, then thousands of people are going to repeat it, to be followed by many more thousands going, “nuh-uh, the thing I said was king is still king.”

Nothing is really king. It’s important, it’s crucial, it’s essential, it’s even critical. But it’s not “king.” The only King is Elvis. Also, King Willem-Alexander of the Netherlands.

And please, for the love of God, do not replace “is king” with mission-critical.

The world is filled — FILLED! — with overused jargony phrases that make me want to tear an Oxford English Dictionary in two. But these are the five I think we should do away with immediately. If we can start here, we can improve content marketing for everyone, making the world a bright and happy place.

(While we’re on the subject, I’m not real wild about “content” either.)

Photo credit: Itzok Alf Kurnik (Flickr, Creative Commons)

An Open Letter To Young Writers Applying For Writing Jobs

As far as I’m concerned, it’s a damned shame that young writers’ cover letters sound sterile and devoid of any emotion, hag-ridden with mediocrity, boredom, and apathy. If this is what you’re trying to show your potential employer, then I think you’re not going to work for anyone.

With apologies to Hunter S. Thompson (more on that in a minute), if you’re a young writer looking for writing jobs, you can’t write a regular cover letter to get an employer interested in you. (Ditto for experienced writers. You just ought to know better by now.).

You can’t follow the same formula your career services advisor gave you, or the advice you’ve read in other career articles. (See LifeHacker’s article on how not to write a bad cover letter.)

Hunter S. Thompson, Miami Bookfair International, 1988Your cover letter has to kick ass. It has to be moving. It has to be so amazing that the hiring manager leaps out of her chair, clutching your letter in her hand, shouting, “Eureka! I’ve found him!”

Think about it: the one thing you’re good at, the one thing you’ve trained for and worked toward over the last several years, and you already show you suck at it with your cover letter. How much confidence is that going to instill in anyone? As a writer, it’s your responsibility — nay, your duty — to knock this thing out of the park.

You can’t open with, “To Whom It May Concern: I am interested in applying for the junior copywriting position I saw on your website.” Of course you are. Why else would you write a letter with your résumé and press clippings?

Do what you learned in journalism or creative writing and make your opening lead as dramatic and attention grabbing as you can.

Try, as Hemingway once said, writing drunk, and editing sober. Be bold, be daring, be a little crazy. Inkslingers are not known for being completely stable, especially when showing off for other writers. And you’re sending your best work to other writers who will silently, but instantly, judge you for the quality of your cover letter. So show off.

A letter that a young Hunter S. Thompson wrote to the publisher of the Vancouver Sun asking for a job is still making the Internet rounds with people reveling in its audacity, wondering if they could pull something like that off.

Of course, at age 21 Thompson was, as the Gawker called, an arrogant little shit. But maybe there’s something to it.

You may not want to go insulting your potential new employer by calling his people dullards, bums, and hacks, at least not if you want to make friends there. But there’s something to be said for letting your voice shine through.


October 1, 1958 57 Perry Street New York City


I got a hell of a kick reading the piece Time magazine did this week on The Sun. In addition to wishing you the best of luck, I’d also like to offer my services.

Since I haven’t seen a copy of the “new” Sun yet, I’ll have to make this a tentative offer. I stepped into a dung-hole the last time I took a job with a paper I didn’t know anything about (see enclosed clippings) and I’m not quite ready to go charging up another blind alley.

By the time you get this letter, I’ll have gotten hold of some of the recent issues of The Sun. Unless it looks totally worthless, I’ll let my offer stand. And don’t think that my arrogance is unintentional: it’s just that I’d rather offend you now than after I started working for you.

I didn’t make myself clear to the last man I worked for until after I took the job. It was as if the Marquis de Sade had suddenly found himself working for Billy Graham. The man despised me, of course, and I had nothing but contempt for him and everything he stood for. If you asked him, he’d tell you that I’m “not very likable, (that I) hate people, (that I) just want to be left alone, and (that I) feel too superior to mingle with the average person.” (That’s a direct quote from a memo he sent to the publisher.)

Nothing beats having good references.

Of course if you asked some of the other people I’ve worked for, you’d get a different set of answers.

If you’re interested enough to answer this letter, I’ll be glad to furnish you with a list of references — including the lad I work for now.

The enclosed clippings should give you a rough idea of who I am. It’s a year old, however, and I’ve changed a bit since it was written. I’ve taken some writing courses from Columbia in my spare time, learned a hell of a lot about the newspaper business, and developed a healthy contempt for journalism as a profession.

As far as I’m concerned, it’s a damned shame that a field as potentially dynamic and vital as journalism should be overrun with dullards, bums, and hacks, hag-ridden with myopia, apathy, and complacence, and generally stuck in a bog of stagnant mediocrity. If this is what you’re trying to get The Sun away from, then I think I’d like to work for you.

Most of my experience has been in sports writing, but I can write everything from warmongering propaganda to learned book reviews.

I can work 25 hours a day if necessary, live on any reasonable salary, and don’t give a black damn for job security, office politics, or adverse public relations.

I would rather be on the dole than work for a paper I was ashamed of.

It’s a long way from here to British Columbia, but I think I’d enjoy the trip.

If you think you can use me, drop me a line.

If not, good luck anyway.

Sincerely, Hunter S. Thompson

Not surprisingly, Thompson didn’t get the job, but don’t let that stop you. You don’t have to be as over the top as Thompson was 45 years ago (and especially don’t be as over the top as he was 10 years ago), but try to incorporate some of his boldness in your next cover letter.

After all, the stuff you’ve been sending hasn’t been doing you any good, so what do you have to lose?

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Ten Commandments of Hiring Freelancers

1. You may not pay less than a living wage. What’s the living wage? Figure out what a professional supporting a family of four in your part of the country needs to make per year. Divide that number by 1,000. That’s the freelancer’s hourly rate. If that number is your budget for the entire project, don’t call them until you can afford them.

Moses and the Ten Commandments

2. Always set — and have — clear expectations. Make sure you know up front what the freelancer is going to do and not do. If you’re hiring a website designer, make sure you know who’s going to provide the written content. If you’re hiring a printer, make sure you know who’s proofreading everything first.

3. You may not ask a freelancer to do project work on spec to see if you like it, and then pay her if you accept it. You wouldn’t do it with your dentist, a plumber, or a mechanic. You hire them based on their past work and their vision. You work with them to make sure they give you what they want. But you pay them for it.

4. You may not refuse to pay a freelancer just because you decide not to use their work. If you decide to go in a different direction, or abandon the project, tough. He did the work, you have to pay him. You wouldn’t do that to an employee whose project you canceled. (Exception: If their work just downright sucks, you can cancel payment, but you cannot salvage their work and use it anyway.)

5. Pay for “feature creep.” If you hire a company to write copy for a marketing brochure, and you want them to lay it out too, be prepared to pay for that. If you’re getting a new logo created, and you decide you want your business cards to have a new look, that’s going to cost extra.

7. You may not compare the work they do to your nephew’s and expect the same fee scale. Don’t say, “but my nephew who just graduated from college can do the same thing for $500.” If he really can, hire your damn nephew. The fact that you’re having this conversation with a professional means you don’t actually think your nephew can do the work. Otherwise, you’d have called him. You’re talking to a professional because you want pro level work, so be prepared to pay pro level prices. Don’t expect a pro to compete with your inexperienced family members.

7. Trust your freelancers’ understanding of their technology. If you’re hiring an SEO specialist, don’t make him follow the SEO rules you learned in 2005. If you’re hiring a web designer, and they say “no Flash,” don’t make them use Flash. In most cases, your freelancers know more about the technology they’re working with than you do (e.g. There is no “clean up button” like you see on Law & Order). If you’re asking for something they say can’t be done, it can’t be done.

8. You may not dismiss what freelancers do as a commodity. Freelancers have devoted years of their life to honing their skill so they excel at it. Writers do nothing but write, designers do nothing but design. They don’t go to weekly staff meetings and committee meetings, and they don’t file TPS reports. If you think this is something that any schlub can do, hire your nephew. You leave your home’s plumbing and electrical work to trained professionals, rather than hiring your nephew, right? Treat your outsourced work with the same seriousness.

9. Always pay on time. You wouldn’t delay paying your employees or withhold their paycheck because you’re worried about cash flow. Don’t delay payment for your freelancers. You — hopefully — pay all of your other bills on time, pay freelancers on time. Believe me, freelancers give drop-everything service to their best clients. Clients who think payment is optional get when-I-have-time service.

10. Always approve the final product. Make sure you read and okay everything. Test it out. Make sure it works. Freelancers will always send you the final product, but that doesn’t mean it’s done. You have to pay careful attention to all the details, because you know more about the subject than anyone else.

Photo credit: Functoruser (Flickr, Creative Commons)

Trademarks and Copyrights Will Screw Up Your SEO

A lot of companies are using copyright and trademark symbols in their blog posts, not realizing the effect those symbols have on their SEO.

If you use the ©, ™, or ® symbols in your blog post titles, or even the first 500 characters of your blog posts, that’s what Google will think your site is about. Those characters become part of the word, like Ke$ha or “Big $aving$,” and are harder to find without them.

If you have the phrase Super-Mega-Global© Electric Socks™ in your website or blog post title, Google will think the actual keywords are “Super-Mega-Global©” and “Electric Socks™.”

Honestly, when’s the last time you ever did a search for ™?

Never. And neither does anyone else.

I realize you want to protect your trademark and brand, but you’re not doing yourself any favors by using the symbols in your posts or pages. Your primary goal for a website/blog is to be found by the search engines, not to satisfy the ticky-tack tics of the company lawyer.

There is plenty of room at the bottom of the blog posts, especially if you stick in a paragraph of boilerplate language at the bottom of the post.

Just make sure you use the <small> tags on them.

Copywriters, Use the Words Other People Use, Not the Ones You Use

Do you know what audio theater is? Does it make you think of something to do with speakers at a movie theater? Or maybe it’s a subset of home theater equipment. Or maybe you’re supposed to go to a play and shut your eyes.

It’s none of those. It’s what we used to call radio theater. (Or radio theatre, if you’re Canadian or British. Or a snooty purist.)

Decoder Ring Theatre cast

Cast of Decoder Ring Theatre, an audio theatre company in Toronto.

You know what radio theater is, right? Remember when Ralph and Randy sat in front of the big giant radio and listened to Little Orphan Annie? We all know what that is, even the people who only hear about it from their grandparents.

But the people who actually do radio theater want to call it “audio theater” instead. Why? Because people don’t listen to the plays on the radio anymore, they listen to them on CD players, iPods, computers, car stereos, etc.

So in order to be more accurate, they changed the name of the art form to more accurately reflect what it is that they produce.

And lost out on a large portion of their potential audience.

There are still plenty of people who used to listen to radio theater with money to spend, but they don’t spend it on the entertainment form from their childhoods because they don’t know it’s called “audio theater” now. Companies like Decoder Ring Theatre have worked hard to overcome this hurdle by being one of the most progressive and dedicated audio theatre troupes I’ve ever seen, embracing social media and Internet marketing, as well as podcasting. (Full disclosure: Decoder Ring Theatre produced and aired six of my Slick Bracer radio plays this summer.) But a lot of other companies have only seen a fraction of this success, and I believe it’s primarily because of this language disconnect between what is “correct” and what is “best.”

How many times have companies harmed their marketing efforts by insisting people call a term by what they want to call it, not what the customers want to call it? How many times have government agencies lost the respect and credibility they worked for, because someone who knows nothing about public communication insisted the agency use the accurate term, not the best term? How many news programs get laughed at because they try to change the commonly accepted term to something that better suits their political biases?

  • An agricultural equipment company I know calls its products by the term they want to use, rather than the more common term their customer uses. This is evidenced by the 1,200 Google searches for their term, and the 20,000+ searches for the common term. While they may rank well for their chosen term, they don’t rank at all for the term their potential customers are using nearly 8 times more often.
  • When the H1N1 epidemic flu first started, the public was calling it “swine flu,” but the media managed — with a lot of work — to get people to start calling it H1N1, because it was harming the pork industry. But the government agencies wanted to call it the human flu, and flu pandemic. Regardless of what they wanted to call it, the media ignored them
  • Fox News’ insistence on calling suicide bombers “homicide bombers,” as per the Bush White House, made them a laughing stalk among journalists and news watchers.

If you’re not sure whether people are using your terms or theirs, go to Google’s Keyword Tool and put in your term and any industry terms you can think of. See which terms have the most global (worldwide) searches and the most local (US) searches. The ones that win are the ones most people are using, and the ones you should be focusing on.

Update: Deleted “Audio” from “Decoder Ring Audio Theatre” above, because despite being a loyal listener for 5 years, and now a contributor, I still can’t get their name right.

Google Wants You to be a Better Blog Writer

The days of schlocky web copy and $1/post off-shore blog writing are over.

Thanks to Google’s new Panda update, your writing can no longer suck. You can’t just get by on 8th grade writing skills, or by hiring an off-shore blog writer for a buck a post anymore.

The new Google Panda update stresses usability and the user experience over whether you have the right keywords in your title and body copy, and over backlinks. Oh sure, they’re still counted, but Google is not putting as much emphasis on those as they once were, thanks to the recent JC Penney backlinking scandal.Photo of a panda

As a result of this, and other Google gaming-techniques that were being abused, Google said, “You know what? That’s it. No more trying to trick us. Now we’re going to start looking at what your users are doing.” (Watch the Rand Fishkin video at the bottom of this post for a much better explanation than I just gave.)

Now, Google is starting to pay attention to the user experience: Do they visit more than one page, which means they like what they see? Are they on for a minute or more, or do they bounce out after 10 seconds, which means you didn’t captivate them? Did they even visit your page when you were at the top of the search engine (i.e. did your page even look interesting)?

The short of it is, if your site sucks, people won’t visit. If they visit, they won’t stick around. And they certainly won’t subject themselves to more than one page of it.

So how do you get them to stick around? You’d better have great content. Not just good enough, not barely readable. Not “meh.” It needs to be awesome.


Photo credit: peromhc (Flickr)