I had the feeling that Steve didn’t believe me. But I had no idea he would go behind my back to try to prove me wrong.
It was the spring of 1999. Steve had recently been hired by my client to write an investment newsletter. He had the qualifications: an MBA and Ph.D. from good schools, experience both in the front and back rooms of brokerages. But he didn’t want to sell stocks. He wanted to write about them.
When I saw his first effort I was impressed. The analysis was sound. The research was deep. There was only one problem. His writing was terrible.
It wasn’t sloppy or illogical or even ungrammatical. But it was incomprehensible. It read like a treatise. It was the kind of writing that you might get away with in academia but could never pull off in the real world.
I called him into my office and told him about my secret antidote for writing like his: the Flesch-Kincaid Readability Test. The FK is a computerized tool that looks at the length of your sentences, how many syllables there are in each word, and other data. It then rates the entire piece in terms of reading ease. A rating of 5.0 or below is very easy to read. A rating of 10.0 or above is very difficult to read. A score between 5.0 and 10.0 is what you’ll find in most newspapers and magazines.
I explained to Steve that my goal is to keep my writing – no matter how complicated the ideas I’m trying to express – at 7.5 or below.
Then we analyzed Steve’s writing. It had an FK of 12.0. Almost off the chart.
“You won’t get a big audience with such a high FK score,” I said. “You have to work on simplifying your writing. Get your FK down to 7.5. You’ll be a better writer, have more readers, and make more money.”
He thanked me for the advice. But, as I said, I could tell he didn’t believe me. What I didn’t find out until years later was that he spent almost two months trying to disprove what I’d told him.