Join Judy Steiner-Williams for an in-depth discussion in this video Use , part of Writing in Plain English.
- Are you familiar with the Reader's Digest, a general interest family magazine? Until 2009, it was the best-selling consumer magazine in the United States. It's available in 70 countries, in 21 languages, and is the largest-paid circulation magazine in the world. Sounds rather popular. Ever wonder why? One reason may be that it has a readability index of between six and eight, or it's understandable by someone with a sixth- to eighth-grade education.
But don't immediately jump to the conclusion that only those with low education read publications readable at such a low level. The Reader's Digest reaches more readers with household incomes of 100,000 dollars plus than Fortune, the Wall Street Journal, or Business Week, those high-brow publications. So what does that mean? Simply, that regardless of how well-educated we are or how large our vocabulary, we like to read magazines, documents, or papers that we can read through one time and understand them.
No-one, absolutely no-one, enjoys reading confusing, convoluted writing, and it's not that we can't figure out what the writer is trying to say. It's that we, as readers, shouldn't have to try to understand it. We're busy, and we expect the writer to have digested the info into the simplest form possible for us. Benjamin Franklin is known for witty, memorable sayings. "Tell me and I forget. "Teach me and I remember. "Involve me and I learn." The readability level? 5.678, or between a fifth- and sixth-grade level.
Why are they memorable? Because they clearly make a point using few words. So let's examine how that readability level is determined. Whether it's the Automated Readability Index, the Flesch-Kincaid Grade Level, the Gunning Fox Index, the SMOG Index, or the Fry Readability Formula, it serves the same purpose. It's a formula that tells you approximately at what grade level your writing is understandable, and regardless of which one you use, they all rate readability based on word syllables and sentence length.
We're going to focus specifically on the Gunning Fox Index and the Flesch-Kincaid Grade Level. Remember that other factors also impact how readable the writing is. How it's arranged, the reader's general knowledge level aside from his or her educational level, and conversational language. But for this lesson, the focus will be on computing that grade level. First the Gunning Fox index. It was developed by Robert Gunning, an American businessman, in 1952, and has stood the test of time.
12, a high school senior education, is considered the danger point. For a universal audience, an eight is considered the norm. If you think that sounds low, consider this finding. The average US college freshman reads at a seventh-grade level according to an educational assessment report. I didn't investigate how that conclusion was reached in the study. It was part of the Common Core State Standard study, but it does support the eight universal audience norm.
Computing the readability index is easy since a variety of computer programs and websites are available to compute for us, and websites are provided throughout the lesson. But let's look briefly at what's considered. The sentence length and the number of difficult words, those with three or more syllables with these exceptions. Don't include three-or-more-syllable words if they're proper nouns. So don't include names, locations, or organizations, for example. If they end with common suffixes such as -ing and -ed.
Neither engaging nor repeated would count. Or compound words. For example, waterfall, although three syllables, would not count. Once the average sentence length and number of complex words are determined, add them and multiply the total by 0.4. For example, the average sentence length in a 100-word passage is 24 and has 10 complex words. 34 times 0.4 is 13.6, above that danger point.
Here's a website that will calculate it for you. The Flesch-Kincaid Readability Index is also a popularly-used readability index. It was co-authored by Rudolf Flesch and John Kincaid. The readability on Ben Franklin's saying using this index is also in the elementary school range. Here is a website that compares and contrasts the readability indices of Gunning, Flesch-Kincaid, and four other formulae. And this website not only provides the readability level from a variety of the readability formulae, but also displays complicated sentences, those with many words and syllables, with suggestions for what you might do to improve its readability.
In Microsoft Word, you can select the readability check from the options connected with the spelling check. If you use Google Docs, you can copy the document into Word to check the readability. Now let's look at a couple of paragraph sample from medical news. "Leading academics underscore the importance "of diet and nutrition for mental health." The rest of the article is in the exercise file, and I assure you that the entire article is difficult to understand. Regardless of which index or method you use to check the readability, this text is about 23 or 24, twice the danger point.
One of Franklin's short, well-known sayings we looked at earlier was "Tell me and I forget. "Teach me and I remember. "Involve me and I learn." So get involved with computing the readability index, so you'll learn more about plain English. And in case you're curious, the average readability of this lesson is about a 10.
If you can write in plain English, you can save time, save money, and save face in communications. Start watching to learn how to make your writing more "plain": stronger, clearer, and more concise.
- Understanding plain English
- Catching mistakes by reading aloud
- Simplifying sentences
- Using strong verbs and meaningful words
- Avoiding corporate jargon
- Finding the right voice and tone
- Editing flow and content
- Writing in a conversational style