A good travel story is a pleasure to read from the beginning to the end.
No one wants to struggle through a story about a luxury resort in the Bahamas. We don’t want to work hard to comprehend an article about a wine cruise along the Burgundy Canal.
That’s why readability is important. You need to make sure your travel stories are easy to read so people will enjoy reading them!
How can you make sure your articles are easy to read? Getting feedback from experts is the best way, especially when you’re just getting started.
But before you turn your story over to someone for review there are other ways to make your writing more readable including using “readability statistics”. The good news is these statistics may be readily available in software you already use.
Microsoft Word has readability tools built in, so if you use this software you already have what you need.
If you don’t use MS-Word, don’t despair! There are many other apps you can use. I’ll give you some recommendations at the end of this article.
No matter what tools you use, it’s important to understand which statistics can help you.
That’s what this article is all about. Here’s how readability statistics will help you improve your travel writing:
(Note: The examples in this article reference setting up readability statistics for Microsoft Word for Mac 2011 (version 14.3.9). If you use the PC version, Microsoft Word Online, or Office 365 your menus will be different. You’ll need to use your “help” file to help you set it up for your version.)
Chances are you already use your spell checker. Did you know you can set up your MS-Word software to check for grammar errors, too?
To make sure MS-Word is checking for grammar errors, select the Grammar box.
I pay little attention to “spelling and grammar” while I’m writing my first draft. My focus is on writing my travel story and getting the content and facts into the article.
Initially I ignore most of the squiggly lines displayed by my software under incorrect words and phrases. I've found it’s too distracting to write creatively and fix problems simultaneously.
During my final edit I make sure all errors are cleaned up. That’s when I check everything – spelling, grammar and the readability statistics for the article.
Readability statistics aren’t automatically turned on as a default in MS-Word. You need to set this option to make them available.
To do this, select Spelling and Grammar from the Tools menu.
At the first screen select the Options... button.
A new window appears. In the section under Grammar, check the box for Show Readability Statistics.
Click OK to save your settings
After you’ve set this up, you should be aware that accessing the Readability Statistics is a little quirky. MS-Word expects you to run a Spelling and Grammar check first (Tools > Spelling and Grammar). You will be prompted to make corrections to your document until this check is complete.
After the spelling and grammar check finishes, a little summary box will pop up on your screen. This box displays your readability statistics.
You won’t be able to do anything else until you click OK but, unfortunately, clicking OK makes the statistics box disappear.
If the statistics indicate I have some things to improve, I go back and make further changes to my article.
I repeat this process until the statistics are within acceptable ranges. If you're wondering what are acceptable ranges, that varies for the type of article you're writing. The next section gives you some guidelines for travel writing.
In case the word “statistics” stops you in your tracks, here’s an easy explanation of each statistic and how you can use it:
The first section deals with Counts. The most important statistic here is Words which refers to your total word count. I’m sure you’ve been watching your word count all along since your editor gave you a target word count when she purchased your story.
Use the “Count” statistic to make sure you’re within the boundaries set by your editor. This is the only useful statistic for travel writers in this section. You can safely ignore the other categories under “Counts”.
The middle section shows Averages for your writing: sentences per paragraph, words per sentence, and characters per word. I look at all of these.
Aim for two to three sentences per paragraph for a travel article if your article is for a website. Because we tend to scan when using our devices, white space is critical. Keeping paragraphs short makes it easier to read.
For print you can follow the traditional rules, but travel articles tend to have fairly short paragraphs. Remember that you want it to be easy to read. Shorter paragraphs are more inviting to a reader.
If you’re not sure how long your paragraphs should be for a particular publication, look through a few of their articles. This will give you an idea of what the editor prefers.
Keep your words per sentence as low possible. This means don’t write long running sentences. It's also important for travel writers to vary the lengths of their sentences.
Generally, travel articles should sound like you’re telling a story over a drink in the pub. We speak in short sentences, so write with short sentences.
Keep the number of characters per word low. Essentially, avoid using big words. Long, highfalutin’ words don’t impress anyone and come off as pretentious. Use shorter, simpler words.
Travel writing isn’t literature. Write like you’re telling a story to a friend.
The last section titled Readability is worth gold when it comes to improving your travel writing. This is also the section most difficult to understand so the rest of the article will explain these statistics.
There are two statistics to focus on in the Readability section:
1. Passive Sentences tells you how frequently you’re using the passive tense, and
2. Flesch-Kincaid Grade Level tells you the grade level of your writing.
Both of these items give important feedback to improve your writing before you pass your article on to your editor.
Here’s a short tutorial to help you see the difference between the active and passive tenses:
1. Look for the verb in a sentence.
2. Does the verb stand alone, or have you paired it up with some form of “to be” such as is, are, was, were, will, be, and been.
3. If the verb is paired with a form of “to be” the sentence is passive.
Here’s an example:
Passive tense: The fish was caught by the eagle.
The verb is “caught” and it’s paired up with “was”. In the passive tense, the sentence sounds limp and weak. It just sits there passively like nothing has really happened.
Active Tense: The eagle caught the fish.
The active tense sounds “active”. You can imagine the eagle swooping down, making a big splash and capturing the fish out of the water.
Here’s another example:
Passive tense: The metropolis has been scorched by the dragon’s fiery breath.
Active tense: The dragon scorched the metropolis with his fiery breath.
Active writing is vigorous and strong. Writing with an active voice gives your writing more “oomph”.
Sometimes MS-Word will find your passive phrases and make suggestions, but often it won’t. As a writer, you need to know how to identify these phrases when your software can’t help.
So here’s my last tip:
Your sentence is active when the subject is before the verb.
In the passive tense, the subject follows the verb.
Passive sentences infiltrate our writing because it’s easy, but it’s lazy and doesn’t invigorate it. Reduce your passive voice to a minimum.
What’s an acceptable minimum?
If your Passive Sentences score is below 10%, you’re doing well. Obviously the lower the better, but you don’t need to eliminate your passive voice completely. Aim for less than 10%.
If your Passive Sentences statistic hits 20%, consciously focus on writing in the active tense until it becomes a habit.
The Flesch-Kincaid Grade Level tells you if you’re writing at the right level for your audience. The correct level for most travel stories is the 7th Grade or lower.
Yes, you read that correctly! If your twelve year old can easily read it, it’s a good level for a travel article.
Most American adults read at the ninth grade level. That’s fine for a textbook. But when we’re reading for enjoyment, we prefer to read at levels a couple of grades below our capabilities.
Otherwise, we have to work too hard and we don’t enjoy reading the article. In fact, we’ll probably abandon it.
A good travel story is easy to read to the very end.
By keeping the Flesch-Kincaid Grade Level below 8, your articles will read easier, and your readers will love you for it.
If you don't use MS-Word, there are plenty of other apps available. A simple search in your favorite browser for “best apps for readability statistics” will give you a list of possibilities to consider. Some are free and some will set you back a few bucks.
There are also several online articles that provide reviews for writing and readability statistics apps. I like the list provided by lifehacker.com because it gives suggestions for different writing genres and for using other devices like iPads and tablets. You can find Lifehacker’s article, “The Best Apps for Any Kind of Writing” here.
Roy Stevenson is a professional travel writer and the author of www.PitchTravelWrite.com. Over the past nine years, he’s had more than 1000 articles published in 200 magazines, trade and specialty journals, in-flights, on-boards, blogs and websites and has traveled on assignment around the U.S. and to dozens of international destinations.