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Home > Publications > Quill > Writing simple and clear will help make the grade


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Friday, September 1, 2006
Writing simple and clear will help make the grade

By Paula LaRocque

Below are four leads for the same story.

1. Kenneth L. Lay, who as founder of the Enron Corporation rose to peaks of influence in business and politics, only to fall into disgrace amid scandal, died early yesterday morning in Aspen, Colo., while awaiting a judge’s sentencing this fall that could have sent him to prison for decades. (The New York Times)

2. Kenneth L. Lay, who catapulted Enron Corp. into the ranks of the nation’s largest companies only to be convicted of fraud after its collapse, died early yesterday after suffering what a family spokeswoman said was a heart attack at a rental property in Old Snowmass, Colo. (The Washington Post)

3. The death today of Enron Corp. founder Kenneth L. Lay at age 64 complicates the federal government’s effort to close the books on one of its most ambitious corporate fraud prosecutions. (Los Angeles Times)

4. Kenneth Lay, founder and vilified former chairman of scandal-ridden Enron Corp., died of a heart attack Wednesday morning. He was 64. (The Associated Press)

One of those leads is more readable and inviting than the others. Which? If you said No. 4, you’re in agreement not only with other readers, but also with the analysis of readability software.

We don’t need software to tell us what we can readily see for ourselves. But software analysis is interesting for what it can teach us about reader-friendly writing. Chief among its lessons is that short words and sentences are better than long. And that subject-verb-object sentences are better than clause-choked sentences.

Long before we had computers, readability studies yielded important information about sentence length and reading grade levels. That research consistently showed that long tracts of sentences exceeding 25 or so words in length are neither clear nor inviting. It also found that even the most highly educated readers prefer to read at a school grade level of 10 or below.

Readability software both supports and supplements those assertions. Microsoft Word, for example, can in an instant deliver sentence length average, grade level and a “reading ease” score for whatever we’ve written. The Flesch Reading Ease Index works on a 100-point scale. The higher the score, the easier the passage is to understand. A desirable index for most writing is above 60.

With those criteria in mind, let’s see what the software says about our four leads. (Obviously, there’s much to discuss in such comparisons, but we’re looking only at readability.)

No. 1: Sentence length is 49 words, twice the recommended maximum length. The grade level is 12.0, but more about that in a minute. The reading ease score is 22.4 on a 100-point scale.

No. 2: Sentence length is 46. Grade level: 12.0. Reading ease score: 16.6.

No. 3: Sentence length is 31. Grade level: 12.0. Reading ease score: 38.9.

No. 4: Sentence length average is 10.5. Grade level: 8.7. Reading ease score: 51.1.

A word about that grade level. Did you notice that the first three leads have grade levels of exactly 12.0? The software doesn’t go any higher than 12.0. Why does the software stop at 12? Maybe because we shouldn’t be writing above that level anyway.

Let’s find out what the grade levels for those three leads actually are. If we calculate those leads by hand (using Robert Gunning’s Fog Index), we find grade levels of 22.8, 23.6, and 20.1 — each beyond the pale in terms of readability. Since 12 corresponds to high school graduate level and 16 to college graduate level, those leads seem meant for readers with four to six years of post-graduate study.

This might be a good time to mention that Einstein wrote his Theory of Relativity at an average grade level of 13.3. Do we really want writing that is less readable than the Theory of Relativity?

What should you do if you run your writing through Microsoft Word’s readability software and earn a 12.0 grade level? It’s true that with software that stops at 12, you won’t know what your actual grade level is. But who cares what it actually is if it’s already too high? Recast some of those dense sentences so you get somewhere near 10. I promise you that your work will benefit. And so will your reader.

If you’ve never discovered through such analysis where your writing style resides, it would be a good idea to find out. Is your average sentence length 25 words, or 50? Is the grade level of your writing 10, or 20? Is your Reading Ease score 60, or 30? The difference between those numbers can also mean the difference between reader-friendly and reader-hostile prose.

Best, that information can be yours with the click of a computer mouse. If you use Microsoft Word, it’s probably available in your grammar checker software.

Sometimes, writers fear simplicity will “dumb down” their writing. This column (omitting the sample leads, which were written by others) has a sentence length average of 11.7, a reading ease score of 61.7, and a grade level of 7.5. Did it seem dumbed down as you read it?

The right kind of simplicity — the kind that makes the complex accessible — doesn’t dumb anything down. It just makes it clear and interesting. That kind of simplicity is not always easy, though. You have to work at it. As Jacques Barzun said, “Simple English is no one’s mother tongue.”

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