How Reading Levels Impact Writing Policies and Procedures

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by Catherine Hibbard

When you are writing policies and procedures, probably the last thing you have on your mind is the reading level of the document. Would it surprise you to learn that the reading level impacts the document's effectiveness in a very specific way? How can your readers understand, follow, or implement a policy or a procedure if they do not understand it?

A good rule of thumb when determining the optimal reading level is to keep it between the sixth and eighth grades. Of course the reading level depends on your readers' backgrounds, experience, and level of expertise. However, if you are writing for a general audience or your audience is unknown, this guideline provides a starting point.

One of the most respected methods for determining a document's reading level is the Gunning Fog Index (GFI). In linguistics, the GFI is a test designed to measure the readability of a writing sample. The resulting number indicates the number of years of formal education that a person requires in order to understand the text on a first reading.

To "test drive" the GFI, follow these steps:

  1. Select a sample paragraph of approximately one hundred words.
  2. Calculate the average sentence length in the paragraph.
    • Count the number of sentences.
    • Count the number of words.
    • Divide the number of words by the number of sentences.
  3. Count the number of difficult words in the paragraph, which is defined as words of three syllables or more.
  4. Add the results of steps 2 and 3 together.
  5. Multiply by a factor of .4.
  6. The resulting number is the reading level of the paragraph.

Read the sample paragraph below:

Our company, ABC, states that telework is a virtual resource solution and provides access to resources that may not be available otherwise. Telework supports company leadership in accomplishing the mission. Recent company guidance on emergency planning has emphasized the role of telework. Various companies, including ours, have the flexibility to use teleworkers in emergency situations, but ABC emphasizes that this support can not happen spontaneously. A viable on-going telework program is the foundation that must be in place. With new technology available at ABC, we can conduct critical transactions and exchange information with appropriate security and authentication mechanisms away from ABC facilities. With the appropriate remote administration of essential support systems (e.g., the provision of help-desk support), ABC teleworkers can help ensure the continuity of ABC's essential functions.

Now, plug in the appropriate numbers.

Number of words in paragraph: 128
Number of sentences in paragraph: ÷ 7
Average sentence length: 18.28
Number of difficult words: + 44.00
Total 62.28
  x .40
Paragraph reading level: 24.91

The results of using the GFI suggest that a reader would need an advanced college degree to understand this paragraph. You may find fault with the formula and challenge the findings, but let's proceed with the premise that the reading level may be too high. What would be the easiest way to lower the reading level?

If you suggest the problem lies with the length of the sentences, I would agree. Because overly long sentences often appear in many technical documents, modifying the sentence length would be a relatively quick "fix." When you are writing policies and procedures, remember that to be effective, they should be easily understood. Keeping this in mind as you write your first draft should make the editing process easier.

About the Author

Catherine Hibbard

Catherine S. Hibbard is a nationally recognized expert in business and technical writing. Her company, Cypress Media Group, is an advertising, public relations, and training firm that provides training and consulting primarily related to business and technical writing, presentation skills, and media relations.

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Catherine was ranked 9th on The Top 100 Influencers in #Techcomm bloggers list in 2013.

She can be reached by e-mail at catherine@cypressmedia.net.

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