Make your copy measurably more interesting
Can you measure how interesting your copy is? Readability expert Rudolph Flesch believed that you can.
Flesch is famous for developing the Flesch Reading Ease, one of the most popular and widely used readability tests. It uses word length and sentence length to measure how easy your copy is to read.
Less famously, Flesch also created a formula for measuring “human interest” in your copy. It uses references to people and conversational language to measure how interesting your copy is to read. And interesting copy, Flesch said, is more readable.
“The structural shortcoming of the [Flesch Reading Ease] formula is the fact that it does not always show the high readability of direct, conversational writing,” Flesch wrote in “A New Readability Yardstick.”
The original readability formula, Flesch wrote, “consistently rates the popular Reader’s Digest more readable than the sophisticated New Yorker magazine, although many educated readers consider the Reader’s Digest dull and the sprightly New Yorker ten times as readable.”
So how interesting is your copy?
Run the human-interest test on your copy.
Flesch’s human interest score hinges on two measures:
1. Personal words. They include:
- Nouns with natural gender, such as mother, father, Frank and Opal
- Pronouns except for neuter pronouns — he and she, for instance, but not it
- The words people (used with the plural verb) and folks
2. Personal sentences. These test how interesting and conversational the copy is. Count:
- Quotations, whether marked by quotation marks or not
- Imperative sentences, or those addressed to the reader, including questions, commands and requests
- Grammatically incomplete sentences whose meaning the reader must infer from the context
The higher the percentage of personal words and personal sentences, the higher the human interest score.
Which is more interesting?
In one application of his formula, Flesch analyzed articles from Life and The New Yorker that covered the same topic.
|Excerpts from Life article|
(Oct. 27, 1947)
|Excerpts from The New Yorker article|
(Oct. 25, 1947)
|“Using better drugs and a wider knowledge of the mechanics of pain gained during and since the war, Doctors E. A. Rovenstine and E. M. Papper of the New York University College of Medicine have been able to help two-thirds of the patients accepted for treatment in their ‘pain clinic’ at Bellevue Hospital.“The nerve-block treatment is comparatively simple and does not have serious aftereffects. It merely involves the injection of an anesthetic drug along the path of the nerve carrying pain impulses from the diseased or injured tissue to the brain. Although its action is similar to that of spinal anesthesia used in surgery, nerve block generally lasts much longer and is only occasionally used for operations.”||“… Recently, [Rovenstine] devoted a few minutes to relieving a free patient in Bellevue of a pain in an arm that had been cut off several years before. The victim of this phantom pain said that the tendons ached and that his fingers were clenched so hard he could feel his nails digging into his palm. …”‘One of my greatest contributions to medical science has been the use of the eyebrow pencil,’ he said. He took one from the pocket of his white smock and made a series of marks on the patient’s back, near the shoulder of the amputated arm, so that the spectators could see exactly where he was going to work. … The patient’s face began to relax a little. ‘Lord, Doc,’ he said. ‘My hand is loosening up a bit already.’ ‘You’ll be all right by tonight, I think,’ Rovenstine said. He was.”|
I find The New Yorker passage much more interesting than the Life passage. But exactly how much more interesting is it, and why? According to Flesch’s human interest test, the New Yorker piece is 757 times more interesting:
- With 0 personal words and 11 personal sentences per 290 words, the Life article scores a 7, or “dull.”
- With 11 personal words and 41 personal sentences, the New Yorker piece gets a score of 53, or “highly interesting.”
Is your copy dull — or highly interesting?
To make it more engaging, increase your human interest score.