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Wednesday, November 01, 2006


Is Your Writing Too Hard to Read? Try Fry's Readability Graph

At TheHighCalling.org I have the privilege of editing work by some of the best Christian poets and writers in the country. Many of them are very successful in the academic world.

Which creates a problem. We started getting some esoteric academic work--because that's what they were used to writing. Academic writing specializes in abstraction and generalization. It's not necessarily a bad thing; it's just what Universities do.

So a few months ago, I added a new little request when I sent out writing guidelines. "Try to keep your text at a 9th grade reading level." I've heard that's the general reading level that newspapers aim for. I figured we didn't need to be more literate than the New York Times.

Of course, the writers called me on it. As they should have. My inbox filled with questions. What does 9th grade reading level mean? How do I know if my writing is simple enough? Why don't you have more confidence in the intelligence of your readers?

That last question got me.

But reading level isn't about the reader's intelligence. It's about respecting the audience and making the process as simple for them as possible. That's what good writing does. Good writing simplifies complex ideas into a form that makes them accessible.

But I owed it to my writers to find research that would back up my hunch. My mother-in-law was a reading specialist for the UT system schools. Because she's now retired, she was delighted to help me explain reading level guidelines to our writers.

First, she loaned me Content Area Reading. My first clue that assessing reading level was more complicated than I thought: there is an entire college course on it.

Thankfully, Fry's readability graph simplifies the process. His graph looks at two things:
1) the # of words per sentence
2) the # of syllables per word.
Very simple. And a good exercise for every writer. After we fill out the little graph, we can ask ourselves, "What is the typical reading level of my work? Is that appropriate to the audience I want to reach?"

I think achieving readability is what happens on the fourth or fifth time through the text. For me, sometimes it's as simple as having someone else read it. If they don't understand, it's not readable.

The graph will be a good place to start, though. Thanks for the link.
Thanks for reading, charity! I'm glad you liked the link. Ideally, I think you're right about revision and readability.

But I've worked with lots of writers who have the opposite problem. Instead of becoming more accessible as they revise, their work becomes less accessible. They self edit themselves into prose that is more and more dense and full of latinate words and erudite sentence constructions.

One author in particular had a lot of trouble trusting his ideas to stand on their own validity. It may have been a self-confidence problem I don't know. He wanted it to sound smart--and by that he often meant that he wanted it to sound academic and abstract.
Hey, there, Mark... you're using my multi-syllable words (just answered a comment last night and included the word erudite)!

Anyhow, the graph is probably a good thing, but it seems so much like a math exercise ... I do like Charity's approach and I also try to read my work out loud. In the end, I guess it's partly trusting the Editor (something I'm working on in earnest right now with my own manuscript... uh oh, was that too many syllables in too short a space and is my sentence rambling on too long and am I doomed to sit on the comment shelf if no one can decipher this and will it negatively impact my blogofuture and will people still have affection for me, and..... Somebody, quick, get the graph!!!)
Yeah, "erudite" is a great word. I used it tongue-in-cheek in the comment to charity. It's exactly the kind of word I try to avoid.

But then, when I was a teacher, I declared war on all uses of the word "plethora." My students used to taunt me with it in their essays, drawing little smiley faces in the margins.

The truth is, I agree with you about Fry's graph. It is too simple--but it forces writer's to look at (or maybe think about looking at their sentence constructions in a very systematic way.

For me, that's what a line edit is all about.

Long sentences aren't really what make something difficult to read though. For example your long sentence in the comment (I'm being systematically tongue-in-cheek again) is not actually hard to read because it is so perfectly parallel.

It is the complexity of a sentence's clauses and phrases that can be a problem. And most long sentences get overly complex because the writer doesn't write with such beautiful parallelism.

It's a long comment, but a fun way to end my lunch break.
But then, when I was a teacher, I declared war on all uses of the word "plethora." My students used to taunt me with it in their essays, drawing little smiley faces in the margins.

It's cos the previous year, Ms Scwheers was all about saying plethora at least weekly. Student hears this and goes "SAT word!" Includes in smartypants essays later in life (ie next year).
I know. I teased her about it once. She got pretty mad.
Mark, you are too funny! (And now I know how to drive you crazy with a plethora of plethora usage!! :)

I promise I'll use the graph someday. (Ever wonder if some of us need to use it in reverse?? Do I? Have? Enough? Words? In my sentence? Are my words? More than one sound? Long?)

I am going to trust you about the parallel thing, and take that as a compliment. Just don't start mentioning my triangular, hypotenusistic tendencies, okay?

Blessings to you!
Thanks for this post... I agree with your point - "Good writing simplifies complex ideas into a form that makes them accessible"

Still, it doesn't mean my writing will necessarily translate to a 9th grade level... but I suspect you'll tell me that soon enough. :-)
It takes me about a week normally. And next week is our budget cycle... but I hope to get all edits back by Friday.

I agree that Fry's grade level stuff is pretty much nonsense (although you only implied this). No number of words and syllables equates to what an average flesh and blood 9th grader could read. But if we accept that it is just a metaphor, then it becomes more helpful. Keep the reading as smooth and easy as possible for the widest audience possible. That's what all of this comes down to.

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