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    Home Articles

    Cut the Fog! or the Readability Factor

    Dear Ms. Author,

    Thank you for submitting your manuscript to 'Weekly Words'.

    The topic is relevant to our target readership and your style is good, however, the text requires editing with regard to readability. We shall be pleased to consider a revised version at your earliest convenience.

    Yours sincerely,
    A. N. Editor

    You've got the message. They like it, they want it. You'll gladly give it to them, but what on earth is 'readability'?

    Readability is about how clear your message is and how easy it is for an average reader to understand. Your reader should be able to read what you write without stumbling over complicated words. The text should carry your message but not get in the way of your reader's ability to understand that message. In other words, she shouldn't have to read a sentence twice.

    Readability levels are based on the average reading skills of people who've completed different stages of education, e.g., an average 14-year-old, a first-year college student, a college graduate.

    Experienced web copywriters suggest that we gauge our online writing to an 8th grade (USA) readability level. That's the reading-level of an average 14-year-old. That way, we can be sure that almost everyone who speaks English as a first or second language will be able to understand our message.

    Luckily, there's a tool that can help us determine the clarity of a text. That tool is the so-called 'fog-index', a standard test of readability.

    The version of the fog-index I'm going to introduce to you here uses two criteria to measure readability; average sentence length and the frequency of multi-syllable words -- words of three syllables or more. Put simply, short average sentence length and short words make a text more readable.

    The fog-index is easy to use. All you need are short text samples and a simple calculator. Let's walk through the instructions and then I'll show you two examples.


    How to use the Fog-Index

    1) Choose several samples of approximately 100 words each. The samples will usually be taken from one manuscript.

    Complete steps 2, 3, and 4 for each sample separately.

    2) Calculate the average number of words in each sentence. To do this, count the number of sentences and divide the total number of words in the sample by the number of sentences in the sample. 100 words:5 sentences=20 words in each sentence *on average*.

    3) Count the number of words that have three or more syllables but:

    Ignore nouns with capital letters (city names, country names, people's names, etc.)

    Ignore combination words like 'bottleneck' or 'tabletop'. These are terms that could be expressed differently: the bottle's neck, the neck of the bottle, on top of the table. If a term looks like a combination, test to see if you can express it differently. 'Neighbourhood' may look like a combination but it isn't for our purpose. There isn't another way to say neighbourhood using the same word components. We can't describe neighbourhood as 'hood of the neighbour'. Another example of a word we'd include is 'freewriting' because it's a term in its own right.

    Ignore words that end with '-ed' or '-es' if the ending is the third syllable, for example 'edited' (ed-it would have only two syllables) and excuses (ex-cuse would have only two syllables). Most words with these endings will be past tense verb forms and plurals. If, however, you have a word like 'catapulted', it will still count because it's still a multi-syllable word (cat-a-pult), even without the '-ed' ending. This process is much easier than it sounds. Try it and see!

    4) Add the average number of words per sentence and the number of words with 3 or more syllables and multiply your result by 0.4. All it takes is a second if you're using your calculator.

    5) Repeat the process with further samples from the manuscript. The results of each sample can be added together and averaged. To do this, add the readability quotients of all evaluated samples and divide by the number of samples used. You'll find an example below.

    In most cases, you'll have a result somewhere between 8-20. Here's what your result means.

    • Under 10 - Your writing is very easy to read. This is the level you should aim for when writing for most online publications.

    • 10 - The average 15-year-old should be able to understand this level of writing.

    • 11-13 - This writing can be understood by the top 20% of 16-year-olds.

    • 14-16 - A first year college student should be able to understand this level of readability.

    • 17-20(+) - This writing requires a university graduate standard of comprehension.

    Now let's look at two examples of how that works in practice. If you have your calculator handy, you'll be able to follow the process and see how it works.

    Example #1

    You can suggest a series of articles about neighbourhood restaurants or bars, or a feature about local bookstores, hairdressing and cosmetic salons. You can even include your family and friends in your research. Ask them where they shop and why. Don't forget the seasonal markets; First Communions, Bar Mitzvahs, June weddings, Easter and Christmas Fairs. Is a local celebrity about to get married? Do certain stores have seasonal promotions planned? You can almost research as you shop if you keep your eyes and ears open and make a point of talking to storekeepers and staff when things are quiet.

    * 'Storekeepers' doesn't count because we could write 'people who run or keep or own stores'.

    Word count: 99 words
    Sentence count: 7 sentences
    Average words per sentence: 14 (rounded)
    Words with three or more syllables: 8
    Formula: 14 + 8 = 20 x 0.4 = 8 Very easy to read.

    The excerpt is from an article in Wordweb eZine. This level of readability was appropriate because Wordweb is read by writers of all ages, many of whom speak English as a foreign language.


    Example #2

    Freewriting is designed to short circuit the inner critic. The inner critic is not all bad, though. In fact, it has a very useful role to play outside the creative phase of writing. The critic can proof read, alter sentence and paragraph construction and check that what you've written makes sense or follows a plot. The creative aspect of self has a very hard time doing these kind of tasks. Our aim is to have both aspects, the creator and the critic, work together to support you when you write, instead of fighting one another and blocking you.

    Word count: 98 words
    Sentence count: 5 sentences
    Average words per sentence: 20 (rounded)
    Words with three or more syllables: 7
    Formula: 20 + 7 = 27 x 0.4 = 10.8 Average 15-year-old.

    This sample is from a Wordweave workshop module. The level of readability is marginally above the suggested guidelines for online use (average 14-year-olds). However, as writers usually have an above-average command of language, this is acceptable and still well within tolerance.


    How to average scores

    If these samples had both been from one manuscript*, you'd proceed to find the average for the entire manuscript as follows:

    1) Add the sample readability level results

    Sample #1 8.0 + Sample #2 10.8 = 18.8

    2) Divide the total by the number of samples evaluated (2)

    18.8:2 (samples evaluated) = Readability level 9.4

    This writing is very easy to read. This is the level you should aim for when writing for most online publications.

    * Note: In reality, you'd use more than two samples.

    You can use the fog-index tool to determine the readability levels of various newspapers, books, and magazines. Check the average readability levels of magazines and books published by houses to which you'd like to submit. Most publishers target specific markets and they've done their readability research. This technique can help you tailor your writing to the level of readability your publisher -- and your reader -- needs.

    Best of all, you can use the formula to check your own texts for readability levels and adjust them for the target market in each case. If you want to improve text readability, make a text easier to read, reduce the average number of words per sentence and replace words of three or more syllables with shorter alternatives. For online writing, aim for a readability index of 9-10.

    So, if Ms. Author can find out what level of readability A.N. Editor's readers need and edit her text to fit, she'll soon be laughing all the way to the bank to cash her check.

    This article first appeared in Wordweb.

    Copyright © Susan J. Letham

    Susan J. Letham is a British writer who lives in Berlin, Germany. Susan writes articles for print and radio.

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