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    Using hard words (or, if you prefer, complex verbiage)

    Using the Flesch-Kincaid system to determine the readability of editorials

    A colleague of mine was recently preparing a document for inpatients and family members to read. Her hospital, she told me, mandates that all such documents be at a fifth-grade reading level. Her first draft, according to analysis by Microsoft Word, came out around grade 10. She reworked it to simplify the language and found it now to be at eighth-grade level. After a great deal of additional time, she finally got it down to 5.9, and left it there.

    “It’s almost impossible to write about something substantive at a fifth-grade level,” she concluded.

    Readability level

    The Flesch-Kincaid (F-K) readability grade level was developed under contract to the U.S. Navy in 1975. The F-K formula was adopted by the U.S. Army for assessing the difficulty of technical manuals in 1978 and soon became the standard for the Department of Defense. Pennsylvania was the first state to require that automobile insurance policies be written at no higher than a ninth-grade level (14 to 15 years of age) of reading difficulty, as measured by the F-K formula. This requirement has been adopted by many other states and for other legal documents such as insurance policies.

    Peter J. McDonnell, MD
    He is director of The Wilmer Eye Institute, The Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, Baltimore, and chief medical editor of ...

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