I know people working at a contract right now with some specific house style requirements. Some of the house rules are:

  • Avoid using “that.” Most uses of “that” are actually unnecessary.
  • Ditto “all.” There are some cases where it makes sense, but the typical usage is something like “Sort all the parts in the bin.” In this case, “all” is really not adding anything.
  • Avoid “you” when writing. (Years of writing books make this one scrape my nerves.)
  • Avoid contractions. (Again, it’s a little tighter and friendlier with contractions.)

All this (or just “This,” as some would have it) brings me to a discussion of readability.

Readability is simply a measure of how easy it is for your readers to understand you. There are a number of metrics for measuring basic readability, all of which look at the sentence length, word complexity, and punctuation marks, and then do something arcanely mathematical with these data points.

There are a lot of different readability indexes, including Flesch Reading Ease, Flesch-Kincaid, Gunning Fog Index, and several dozen others. The first two of these are available in Microsoft Word in the proofing options. The Gunning Fog Index is available here. You just plug a chunk of text in and hit “Calculate.” Most tests measure in grade level—what grade would you expect someone to be able to read this?—but some measure in 1 to 100. I prefer grade level, as it’s easier to envision this how the writing will be received by my audience.

I’m not going to tell you what formulas these use, as it’s not important. You’ll find online testing options for most of these on the net, so when you have a method you prefer, you can plug sample text in and see how it reads. It doesn’t matter which you use as long as you’re consistent. With all of them, the lower the score, the easier the text is to understand.

It is rarely a problem having your readability too low. In fact, the lower your readability, the better the chances your audience will understand things. My favorite example of how you can communicate big ideas with small words is a great piece of writing that describes Albert Einstein’s Theory of Relativity in words of four letters or less. (Go look; I’ll wait. It’s worth it.)

What is so totally cool about this piece is that the Gunning Fog reading level on this comes out to about 5.5. That’s incredibly low for technical writing of any kind, but Brian did a great job. You still get a clear picture of how relativity works.

I know a number of people, including academicians, government workers, and doctors, who really love saying things with big, meaty words. The reading level of their writing is frequently in the 20s and it’s largely impossible to figure out what they’re saying. I’ve asked them about this and there are several factors for why they like writing so much dense garbage:

  • Big words prove that they’re qualified to write this. (Absurd, but do go on.)
  • Big words ensure that I, the reader, am qualified to read this. (They should be happy I’m even trying without making me want to hurl their stuff across the room.)
  • Big words prove that they’re smart. (That’s not communicating; that’s just shoving their college degree up the reader’s nose.)

Anybody can write drivel. Many people do. It takes a qualified writer to produce something intelligible. Unfortunately, there’s a pervasive belief in these folks that they won’t be perceived as qualified or smart if they don’t write such dense crap. This may even be true, but it should be noted that you may just be dealing with a whole lotta phony assholes hiding behind their degrees, too.

You don’t have to bring everything down to “1984”-style Newspeak, where things are doubleplus good and you have to drink victory gin while writing. But when you’re selecting choosing words, you will communicate make your point better with your audience readers if you use words that aren’t as esoteric strange and are more comprehensible easier to understand and more concise shorter.

3 Responses to “Readability”

  1. John,

    Excellent points. I have to say, however, that the Theory of Relativity in Words of Four Letters or Less, while cool, is probably more complex than the score would show. The need to replace slightly longer, but clearer, words (like nothing) with more complex words (like void), plus the overly breezy writing style are both things that make it harder to read, but don’t add to the complexity score.

    While I’m a fan of complexity measures (probably because I have a propensity for labyrinthine locutions, which I assay to attenuate assiduously), they are not perfect.

  2. It comes down to laziness for me: if it’s too wordy and boring, I just need to keep writing – or start fresh. The crap usually stands out and you can smell it a mile away. Rewrite. Rewrite. Rewrite.

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