As freelance writers, we don’t necessarily have the freedom to pick and choose the topics we are going to write about all the time. There may be times when you end up writing about a boring topic. The good news is there are some strategies you can use to engage your reader and make your content interesting even when the subject is not one that happens to be one of your personal favorites.
If you are a working freelance writer, language is your stock in trade. Obviously, you love words and language or you would not be working in this field. Should you show off your love of prose by using the most exquisite and complicated version of English that you can find when doing work for clients? Nope. Readability is more important than making your work look pretty, and online readability calculators are an important part of your freelance writing toolbox.
Let me explain. Your first goal as a freelance writer is to capture your reader’s interest. Make your audience want to click on your article or blog post, pick up your book, browse through your brochure, or whatever you have been asked to write.
Your next task to write in a way that your audience understands that message that you are trying to convey. You would not use the same terms or writing style if you knew that you were writing a highly technical document for a group of engineers as you would for general content about the best ways to stay cool in the summer.
Types of Readability Tests
Flesch/Flesch–Kincaid Readability Tests
How do you determine how difficult a particular piece of English writing is? The Flesch/Flesch–Kincaid readability tests are used to measure this result using word length and sentence length. The Flesch-Kincaid (F-K) test was developed for the US Navy in 1975. This formula was used by the Army to assess readability of technical manuals, and it has been used by a number of states to regulate that the language level that the language used in legal documents, such as insurance policies, shall be no higher than a ninth grade reading difficulty level.
The Flesch reading-ease test is scored in a manner indicating that higher scores indicate material that is easier to read. The lower the number, the more difficult the passage is for someone to read.
|90-100||Text is easily understood by an average 11-year-old student|
|60-70||Text can be understood by 13-15 year old students|
|0-30||Text can be read and understood by university graduates|
Gunning Fog Index
The Gunning Fog Index looks at the number of complex words in the text – those with three or more syllables – when determining its readability level. Proper nouns, compound words and jargon are disregarded are omitted. Results range from Grade 1 level to an unlimited number. The ideal score for this index is in the 7-8 range.
The SMOG Index was developed in the late 1960s. Here’s how it works: You take 30 sentences from your text (10 each from the beginning, middle and end) and count every word with three or more syllables in each group. Next, you calculate the square root of that number and round it to the nearest 10. Add three to that number. The figure you get is the US Grade level that should be able to read the text.
If this seems like too much trouble, you can use an online readability calculator with SMOG Index capability that will do the work for you. The recommended writing level on this system of measurement is between seven and eight.
Coleman Liau Index
This Index looks at the number of characters instead of the syllables in each word when determining its readability calculation. Its results are in US grade level scores from 1-12. The recommended writing level is seven-eight.
Automated Readability Index
This Index uses a mathematical score with two variables: characters per word and words per sentence. It has been in use since 1967. The scores correspond to US grade levels. If the score result has a decimal, it is rounded up to the next whole number. The recommended writing level is seven-eight.
Why Readability Scores Matter to Freelance Writers
By now you may be wondering what a number on a readability index has to do with your work as a freelance writer. Plenty, as it turns out. You want to write in a way that speaks “to” your audience, not “at” them.
If you use language that gets the message across, but is a bit too technical, full of jargon or has too many syllables when the reader first scans the page, you may lose out on having someone read what you have written, no matter how informative, helpful, funny, provocative or just plain brilliant it happens to be.
That would be a real shame, because I know how hard anyone who puts words together and gets paid for it has to work to produce something worth showing to a client. Finding the right voice and tone for a piece is challenging enough without having it sent back for revisions or plain, flat-out rejected because you were speaking a little bit too far above the intended audience.
This is not the same thing as “dumbing down” a topic when you write. That idea is insulting to both writers and readers alike. It’s a matter of finding the right words to fit the occasion and giving the reader something that they will find interesting, solve a problem they are having, educate them, give them a break and a laugh for a few minutes, or whatever your goal happens to be.
Online Readability Calculators: Check the Score Before you Submit your Work
There are several online readability calculators available for free that you can use to make sure that your work is at the appropriate grade level for your audience. As a general rule, content that you are writing for a general audience should be written for about a Grade 8 level reader.
This online readability tool is quick and easy to use for your own work or existing content on websites. Either copy and paste your content or the web address into the appropriate box and click “Calculate Readability.”
The results will appear within seconds. You’ll discover the readability of the text or content by Grade level.
Copy and paste a sample of your work of between 200-500 words into this free online readability calculator and you’ll get results from seven readability formulas.
Copy and paste your text into the box provided and this free tool will analyze the number of words and characters, sentences, average syllables per word and words per sentence. You’ll also see the US grade level needed to understand it based on different readability indexes. This utility also suggests sentences you may want to consider rewriting to improve your readability index – an excellent feature.
The readability level of your work matters. You want to ensure that you are choosing the right words and phrases to appeal to your target audience. Getting them to click on, pick up or skim your work is only part of what you want to accomplish. You also want them to actually read it and understand the message you want to get across to them.
As a writer, one of your most important jobs is to grab your reader’s attention and pull them into your blog post or article. You want to get the reader excited about what they are going to find when they delve into your words. Keep in mind that you are competing against scores of other material that is also promising to give “your” reader the same type of exciting, informative and helpful information. You have to take steps to make your writing more engaging than another person’s material on a similar topic.
Starting your own blog is an excellent way to showcase your own writing style, independent from work that has been commissioned by clients. It’s your own space on the Internet where you are free to write as yourself and not in the parameters ordered by someone else. There is certainly something freeing in working on your own projects for a change, and this is also a good way to promote your writing business and attract new clients who may be interested in hiring you for some business blogging.
Editor’s note: This post was written by Gary Dek, the blogger behind StartABlog123.com and Gajizmo.com. He offers small businesses and entrepreneurs SEO advice ranging from keyword density research to recovering from Panda/Penguin updates to promoting their blogs and growing traffic.
Are you inspired and motivated to become a great writer? Do you read writing blogs and get the urge to start one, too? Maybe you’re looking for a second income to pay off your debts faster or just had a baby and want to make money from home as a freelance writer.
But you’re worried that you don’t have what it takes to become a professional writer. You don’t think you’re an expert on anything worth writing about, and even if you were, why should anyone hire you specifically? Do you have the habits of a successful writer, or are you doomed to be nothing but a writing wannabe?
Here are a few tips on becoming a better writer and how to differentiate yourself.
What Is Good Writing?
Some individuals in the writing community are book snobs. They think that classic literature is more valid than ‘chick lit’ or that magazines are literary garbage. There are others who think that bloggers are wannabe journalists or that if you self-publish a book, then it must be bad because no publisher would touch it.
What is good and worthy is subjective and relative. The only way to tell if you’re a good writer is to measure the impact you have on your readers. Did you offer a solution to an everyday problem? Did you persuade them to change or improve? Did you captivate or engage them? Did you connect with them on a personal or emotional level?
These are the types of questions you should ask yourself because, at the end of the day, they’re the ones that matter. Using complex sentence structures, alluding to a Shakespearean sonnet, or incorporating SAT vocabulary that only an Oxford Scholar would understand doesn’t make you a great writer. As a freelance writer or blogger, it can make you seem cold, distant, and disconnected.
Ways you might be able to measure whether your writing affects people include:
- User comments and discussions on your blog.
- Direct emails from readers expressing appreciation or asking for additional information.
- Good reviews of your latest Kindle novel, eBook, podcast, etc.
- Social shares that demonstrate strong connections with your work.
Any kind of attention or feedback means your writing is compelling in some way. Otherwise, you’re either writing about something no one wants to read or your style is too dry and boring. Neither of those qualities is desired by publishers.
Steps To Better Writing
Before you can become a better and popular writer, you must hone your skills. While what is considered good may be relative, the habits you must acquire are universal. The following are solid, proven methods to improve your skills.
Learn The Craft
If you want to be a chef, you must first learn how to cook; and if you want to be a writer, you have to learn the principles of writing, including but not limited to: grammar, sentence structure, vocabulary and punctuation. You may have great ideas for your writing style, but for it to be any good, you must first learn the rules. Then you can go ahead and break them as you see fit.
You must also learn story-writing essentials such as purpose, tone, plot, character development, and structure. Learn how to write realistic dialogue so your characters don’t come off as wooden and one dimensional.
The best way to achieve this is to read. Ever notice how the best writers are voracious readers? This is because exposure to quality work sets a standard in your mind and what we learn as readers, we’ll implement as writers.
Write, Write, and Write
This may seem a bit obvious, but writers have to actually write. Like anything else in life, practice makes perfect. The more you practice writing, the easier you can put your thoughts into words. You must create a daily writing habit and commit to it.
If you are a new freelancer and don’t have any writing gigs yet, start a personal blog and make it a habit to write every day, even when you don’t feel like it. If you are serious about becoming a successful freelance writer, it has to feel like a job – pick a time, start working and stay until you’ve finished.
If you aren’t tech-savvy, use the step-by-step tutorial provided by StartABlog123.com to learn how to set up a blog in under 20 minutes. Once you start getting freelancing jobs, your blog will serve as your resume and portfolio.
Seek Out Criticism
The feedback you receive from peers, writers, professors, and mentors is invaluable. They may not represent your target audience, but the constructive criticism you’ll get from them will help you determine your shortcoming and where you need focus.
It may bruise the ego to hear that something you’ve written is falling flat, especially if it’s something you took a particular liking to, but this is how you learn to sharpen your instincts.
The Intangibles That Can’t Be Taught
While the above tips will strengthen your technical and fundamental writing skills, there is a bit more to “good writing” than having proper grammar and sentence structure. The easiest way to describe it is that each literary piece you produce must have personality.
Here are a few qualities that will allow you to genuinely connect with readers and evoke positive emotions with your work.
- Compassion gives you the ability to put yourself in another person’s shoes, which in turn helps you create realistic and relatable characters. Empathy helps a writer tap into the audience’s emotional pulse.
- Ingenuity is what helps a fiction writer create an imaginative and intriguing setting for a story. A writer with imagination or unique problem-solving skills is able to attack an old dilemma with a different point of view. The latter is especially crucial for freelance writers trying to stand out in a crowded niche.
- Dedication is what separates a serious writer from a wishful thinker. Good writers tend to live and breathe their writing. They can’t go a day without it; they are always thinking about their next post, short story, editorial, satire, novel, etc. A great writer is passionate about language, communication and using both to tell stories that capture hearts and minds. That passion will be what keeps you committed despite the occasional failure.
These character traits may or may not be learned; it really depends on you as an individual. Sometimes experiences and environments can change people, as can purposeful behavioral modification. If you believe your writing lacks these qualities, how can you acquire them?
Get Some Life Experience and Share It
One of the oldest rules for writers is to write what you know, but in order to have anything insightful to share, you’re going to have to live a little. Step outside of your comfort zone and be adventurous, experiencing moments that challenge you mentally, physically, and/or emotionally. Make new friends and listen to different perspectives to further develop empathy.
Develop A Taste For Diversity
Open your mind to the possibility that you are wrong about everything you believe in. Exposing yourself to a wide range of topics, personalities, and philosophies rather than sticking with what you know and love, will help you build your imagination. If you tend to only watch comedy films, branch out to documentaries and science fiction. Only interested in classic literature? Try reading something from a recent bestseller list. Never been out of the country? Travel to Peru and visit Machu Picchu, the Peruvian Amazon Basin, and Lake Titicaca. Unique experiences will engage readers and spark new ideas, helping you stand out.
One of my favorite quotes to support this is from Steve Jobs:
“You can’t connect the dots looking forward; you can only connect them looking backwards. So you have to trust that the dots will somehow connect in your future. You have to trust in something – your gut, destiny, life, karma, whatever. This approach has never let me down, and it has made all the difference in my life.”
Be More Open and Less Repressed
Beware of dismissing what you love out of fear of appearing uncool or weird. Indifference is a creative energy killer. Indulge your passions, share them with others, and find others who have similar interests. Learn to accept what makes you unique, and embrace being you.
Anyone Can Become A Better Writer
It takes work to be a better writer, but you can do it. You have to be willing to learn your craft, make time to write and accept productive criticism when necessary. Working with mentors, professors and other talented and dedicated writers can also increase your odds. But if you want to succeed, you can’t just mechanically follow these steps. Ultimately, you must transform yourself into someone with a unique voice worth reading. If you can educate and uplift your audience, you’ll always be in demand.
If you have ever been plagued by writer’s block, you know how painful the blank page or screen can be. While you may be concerned that the inability to get anything down is a sign of writer burnout, the two conditions are not the same thing.