Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Keeping It Simple…But Not Stupid

For what grade level do you write?

I was first faced with this question in college. Eager to start my training as a professional writer, I enrolled in Advanced Composition immediately after I finished the Freshman English required courses.  An upper level class, I was the only freshman in the room, but at 19, I didn’t know how to be intimidated.

My classmates wrote papers about legalizing marijuana, the rebellion in El Salvador and gender bias in the workplace, while I turned in an essay on the evils of cornflakes.  Each got picked apart, but mine got laughs at least.

Next my professor gave us the Flesch Reading Ease Readability Formula for finding to what grade level our writing appealed.  After we had a chance to apply it to our work, he went through the class asking for results.

“Twelfth” said the pothead with the fuzzy hair.  The feminist said “College.” My face reddened with each response as the professor came closer to me.  “Eleventh,” the foreign policy guru next to me said.

“Eighth,” I shrugged.  Dr. R. only nodded.  What did that mean?  OK, now I was intimidated.

What is the Flesch Reading Ease Readability Formula?

Developed by Rudolph Flesch, an author and educator, in 1949, the formula is one of the oldest and most accurate formulas for determining the ease with which something can be read.  Several U.S. Government Agencies use it and, of course, it used with school textbooks.

To use it, isolate a passage in you article, book, etc., then count the number of sentences, followed by the number of words in the passage.  Divide the number of words by the number of sentences to get the Average Sentence Length (ASL).

Take a single paragraph in that same passage and count the number of words, then count the number of syllables in that paragraph.  Divide the number of syllables by the number of words to get the Average Syllables per Word (ASW).

Multiply the ASL by 1.015 and the ASW by 84.6.  Next subtract those new numbers from 206.835 to get your Readability Ease (RE). Here's the formula written out:

206.835 - (ASL x 1.015) - ASW x 84.6) = RE

The scores break down like this:
90 to 100 - easily understood by 5th grade students
80 to 90 - easily understood by 6th grade students
70 to 80 - easily understood by 7th grade students
60 to 70 - easily understood by 8th grade students
50 to 60 - easily understood by 9th grade students
40 to 50 - easily understood by 10th grade students
30 to 40 - easily understood by 11th grade students
20 to 30 - easily understood by 12th grade students
Below 20 - easily understood by college students or college graduates

This article's RE is 79.9, which means the average 7th grader can understand it and probably most 6th graders.

“Which of you is the most likely to publish in today’s media?” asked our professor.  We decided either the pothead or the foreign policy guru, but he pointed at me.

According to the National Assessment of Adult Literacy, the average American reads on the 8th grade level, and as Dr. R. informed us, newspapers and magazines are written on that level.  Writer and editor Kathy Krajco believes all Americans have come to expect "writing that doesn't tax you with abstractions and unnecessarily big or uncommon words" in both nonfiction and fiction so if a writer wants to be published, he must write on that level.

This is not to say you have to write down to the American reader. It is more about writing in "Plain English" - verbs that convey action, concrete nouns and adjectives that communicate your ideas effectively, and varied but straightforward sentence structures. Don't distract your reader with, as Krajco says, "the fog of excess verbiage." Don't make your reader go looking for your point. Readers are too busy today to go hunting and they'll move on to something else.

“Keep it simple.  Keep it clear.  Keep it focused," my professor instructed 32 years ago. "And you’ll be more likely to get published anywhere.”

~~ Amy Munnell

Amy is the Editor of The Purple Pros, and has been an SWA member since 1990, serving on the Board of Directors from 1993-2007 and again from 2011 to the present.  She has been a freelance writer and editor for 25 years with her work appearing in various publications including the Chocolate for a Woman's Soul series, Saying Goodbye, From the Heart, Points North, ByLine, Athens Magazine and Georgia Magazine. 

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