Readability: Writing to be Read

Are you writing to be read? Learn how to apply readability formulas to your writing, how to make your writing easier to read, and why a readability formula makes a good servant, but a poor master.

How easily can your writing be understood?

One easy way to answer that question is to calculate the "fog index" of your writing, using the Gunning Readability Formula. This is a simple tool that measures the reading level of any piece of writing. While it can't make an absolute determination about how appropriate your writing level is for your intended audience, it can give you a general measurement to aid your editorial decisions.

Here's how to calculate your "fog index":

1. Choose a passage of 100 words. If you're analyzing a long article, select several different 100-word sections and average your results.

2. Count the number of sentences in your sample. If your sample passage doesn't end at a sentence break, estimate the portion of the final sentence that is in your sample and add this fraction to your sentence count.

3. Divide the number of sentences into 100 to determine the average sentence. For instance, if your sample contains five sentences, divide 100 by five to find that the average sentence length is 20 words.

4. Count the number of long words in the sample passage. A "long" word is one with three or more syllables. However, don't count words in which "es" or "ed" form the third and final syllable. Also, don't count hyphenated words like state-of-the-art or compound words like newspaper.

5. Add the average length to the number of long words (your results from steps three and four)

6. Multiply your result from step five by 0.4. This number gives you the approximate grade level of the passage. A grade level of 10, for instance, suggests that the sample is written at a 10th grade reading level.

Remember, people can understand articles written at a lower level without necessarily feeling the writing is beneath them. Daily newspapers tend to be written at an eighth-grade level. The Bible, Shakespeare, Mark Twain and TV Guide all have fog indexes of about six. Newsweek and the Wall Street Journal average 11, as does Associated Press wire service copy. Writing above a 12th grade level is generally considered too hard for most Americans to easily comprehend. The average American reads at a ninth grade level. Material with a reading level of 17 is usually too hard to university students to comprehend.

The Gunning fog index the only way to measure reading levels. In fact, if you use Microsoft Word you have other readability analysis tools at your disposal. The built-in grammar checker uses three Flesch tools to analyze your writing style: the Flesch reading ease scale (100 is the easiest, and 70-80 is average); the Flesch grade level scale (six is average); and the Flesch Kincaid scale (another formula for determining reading level).< How can you make your writing easier to read? Here are several tips for keeping your "fog index" low: 1. Watch out for compound sentences. As the number of clauses in a sentence climbs, readability drops. If you have too many clauses, you may be trying to make a sentence do too much work. Break it into several smaller sentences. 2. Don't use $100 words when a five cent word will do. Don't utilize when you can simply use. Don't accomplish when you can simply do. Don't have a deficiency when you can simply have a lack. Things don't have to be infrequent -- they can be rare. 3. Watch out for words with expensive add-on syllables that add nothing to your meaning but exact a cost in readability. Examples include administrate (administer), discontentment (discontent), irregardless (regardless), orientated (oriented) and preventative (preventive). 4. Don't bring in a whole phrase to do the work of a simple word. Don't say "on the order of magnitude of" when you can just say "about." Why say "give encouragement to" when you can just "encourage"? Say "most" instead of "a majority of" and "has" instead of "is equipped with." 5. Reject phrases from the Department of Redundancy Department. See if you can spot the redundancies in these phrases: basic principles, hollow tube, personal opinion, exactly equal, past history, still continues. Readability indexes are useful as servants, but they make poor masters. Writing is too complex to be reduced to simple mathematical formulas. An article that earns a good score on a readability scale can still be hard to understand if it is built on muddy thinking. Writing at an appropriate grade level is a worthy goal, but not one that should be pursued at the expense of other equally worthy goals, such as being interesting and colorful.