April 23, 2005

Readability.

Stephen Bainbridge and Gordon Smith are fooling around with a website that purports to calculate the readability of your webpage. Gordon is especially fascinated by two quite different scores, both of which purport to represent how many years of schooling one would need to read his writing. Steve seems to assume that a smarter person writes harder-to-read prose -- which would put Kevin Drum on an unusually high level. [UPDATE: Steve's only kidding.]

But if you read how the calculations are done, you'll see it's all about the length of your words and sentences. So a person who likes to start a new sentence with "and" or "but," instead of going with a comma when there's an independent clause, will get a lower grade level score. So will a person who follows Strunk and White and chooses Anglo Saxon rather than Latin-derived words. I'd say you're probably writing better if you end up with a lower grade-level score.

These simplistic calculations don't encompass enough factors to really tell us how hard or easy it is to read someone's prose. Mark Twain scores lower than Reader's Digest in one calculation, because, I'm guessing, he likes to insert periods, spices things up with some very short sentences, and edits out stuffy polysyllabic words. But I'll bet you can skim through Reader's Digest faster, because there aren't so many surprising observations.

The real question is how sophisticated your ideas are. If you are saying simple things in convoluted prose, you're a terrible writer who doesn't deserve to be read. Point me to the writer -- like Mark Twain -- who's saying striking, new things in clear prose! Blogs, especially, should be easy to read. But blog posts should contribute something new to the mix. Do you seriously think you're doing a better job if you're writing something harder to read? Don't you think Mark Twain worked over his prose to make it readable?

Frankly, I'm disgusted by the atrocious writing I have to read every day as part of my job. Frequently, reading judicial decisions and law review articles, I struggle to get the point, I take the time to decode the eye-glazing verbiage, and when I get it translated into plain English, I see it's a pretty simple point. This kind of writing is a product of laziness, the lack of genuinely interesting ideas, a careerist effort to seem smart and high-level, and a selfish lack of consideration for the reader.

UPDATE: Sissy Willis agrees with me and is nice enough to point out that my post is easy to read and adds something to the mix -- which is the standard I set for blogs. Also, people seem to be assuming that these calculations are something new, but I can remember when a grammar check on Microsoft Word ended with these numbers. And there's another problem with assessing a blogger's writing this way: a good portion of the writing on a blog is in the quotes. I'd like to see my numbers with the quotes excluded: a lot of the fusty writing is in the quotes.

13 comments:

Rick Lee said...

I just put through my blog (http://rickleephoto.blogspot.com) and while I was pleased with most of the scores, it was a little disconcerting to see that one would need only 4.5 years of education to read it!

I used to write some magazine articles (on computer gaming) and the editors effectively beat out of me my college-induced tendency to elaborate and use overly long sentences in the passive voice. I had developed those habits primarily to pad the length of essay question answers and I felt I was rewarded for doing so.

I was pleased to receive this in email from a friend who was educated at Cambridge: "What an extraordinary blog... so concise, visually stunning... the tags well written." Perhaps I might receive similar letters from 4th graders in the future?

Dean said...

Ann wrote, " the atrocious writing I have to read every day as part of my job. Frequently, reading judicial decisions and law review articles, I struggle to get the point, I take the time to decode the eye-glazing verbiage." My complaint exactly which why I prefer to do my legal research at the Wi State Library -- more and better bars to help translate shadlow side of the verbiage.

Stephen said...

Thanks for writing this post, Ann. It's always nice to read a good rant on the writing of clear prose.

Richard Lawrence Cohen said...

All of us who use Microsoft Word have built-in Flesch-Kinkaid readability statistics available on our grammar check. Many other readability formulas exist, such as Fry. Most use quantitative measures of sentence length and syllable count, but there's at least one (I forget the name) that uses a vocabulary list. I often need to use readability counts in my work as a textbook writer, required to produce copy on a specified grade level. It's a simple trick to break up long sentences and use a lot of one-syllable words when necessary. I find that my own writing settles down to middle school level for fiction, high school for nonfiction. Hemingway probably would score at about fourth grade. I aspire to get there. (Substitute "hope" for "aspire" and I'd lose about a tenth of a grade.)

Dave said...

Excellent post.

Your point (and Bainbridge's) is especially interesting and poignant since both of you belong to groups (lawyers and professors) for whom "clarity of prose" is not a well-known quality.

irish guard said...

I work at an investment bank and am routinely surprised by the poor writing skills, as well as grammer, of my associates. Most of them have MBAs and lord them over others, yet cannot put a reasonably constructed sentence, let alone paragraph together.

Marcus Aurelius said...

I graduated from UW-Platteville and the prof I had for my first English class told us to junk our thesauruses! He said too many students try to impress their professors by using the most obscure word possible and while two words may be close enough in meaning to be linked by a thesaurus their "nuances" are often completely different.

I ran my blog through the readability check and did not do too badly one score had me writing at grade level 6 and another in grade 9.

Ann Althouse said...

Dave: people say that about lawyers, but the best lawyers try hard to communicate clearly and clear writing is stressed in law school. Ask anyone who teaches a writing class in law school. I bet Strunk and White is their standard.

Alan Kellogg said...

Ann,

Not all who pad their writing come from an academic background. A chap I know (who we'll call Gary because that's his name.) is notorious in my avocation for his run-on sentences that contain enough punctuation to supply a small book, and can change subject 5 times before the end.

He's also fond of verbiage last used around the 8th century. Often to the dismay of potential readers. Holding to the belief that using difficult language builds character and weeds out the lazy and self-indulgent.

Funny thing is, you get used to it. Indeed you come to expect it from Gary. Read enough of his work and it starts to be the expected for him. In short, it becomes his style and you adjust for it.

No, he doesn't do it to impress people. He just likes big words, and he sometimes forgets to end his sentences until they've become a tad long. He's also not a good self-editor. Something he's admitted himself.

So it isn't just the overeducated/undersocialized.:)

Marcus Aurelius said...

We have a lawyer in our vast ?-wing conspiracy here in Outagamie County who is known throughout the state party as a stickler for proper grammar and punctuation. I have read his writing for the party and it is just fine.

A buddy of mine takes 1000 words to say what can be said in 10. I tried to give him some instruction but he barely made it through HS so while he is smart and has good ideas he can not express himself very well in written language. Oh well, he is aware of it and takes editing well.

Lawyers should write well! There whole job revolves around putting things into documents that make meanings very clear.

Abraham said...

I actually told my Note and Comment people for Law Review to read Orwell's Politics and the English Language. It's a fantastic essay on writing, and I strongly recommend it to anybody who writes! In case you've never read it, it includes Orwell's famous rules:

1. Never use a metaphor, simile, or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print.
2. Never us a long word where a short one will do.
3. If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out.
4. Never use the passive where you can use the active.
5. Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word, or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent.
6. Break any of these rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous.

Ann Althouse said...

Abraham: Thanks for bringing up "Politics and the English Language." I can't believe I've never blogged a recommendation of that essay, but I haven't. Everyone needs to read that! I've reread it many times and have contemplated making it part of law school class assignments just to get more people to read it. Possibly the best essay ever.

Nick said...

I think everyone is missing an important part of readability... and thats screen readability. The website shown actually only deals with the actual words being used.

Another important part of readability is type face, and colors used. I can barely read some blogs because they use dark backgrounds with light text... which drives my eyes insane after only a minute.