READABILITY HELPS THE LEVEL
Measure for Measure
Certain students have asked me if we could share the information again about the readability index, Linsear Write. Linsear Write was developed for the Air Force to help them calculate the readability of their technical manuals. To understand the index, you need to do the following:
- Find a 100-word sample from your writing.
- Calculate the easy words (defined as two syllables or less) and place a number "1" over each word, even including a, an, the, and other simple words.
- Calculate the hard words (defined as three syllables or more) and place a number "3" over each word as pronounced by the dictionary.
- Multiply the number of easy words times "1."
- Multiply the number of hard words times "3."
- Add the two previous numbers together.
- Divide that total by the number of sentences.
- If your answer is >20, divide by "2," and that is your answer.
- If your answer is <20 or equal to 20, subtract "2," and then divide by "2." That is your answer.
If your answer is 10, you have written at the 10th grade in high school. If your answer is 14, then it would take a sophomore in college to understand your writing.
Exceptions do exist to the general counting of words. Let's take each of the exceptions:
If your name is Jane Smith, that counts as "1." If you have a number like 2,350,000, that counts as "1." Let's say you have a date, such as 6 November 1996, the 6 counts as 1; November counts as 1; and 1996 counts as 1. Suppose you have an amount, such as $4.25, that counts as "1." Let's take some geography, such as Northridge, California. Northridge counts as "1," and California counts as "1."
The Canadians have developed an index that zeroes in on "it," "this," "there," and the word, "and," all considered lazy words. Better ways need to be found to write sentences. The calculation of the index also concentrates on prepositions, such as of, from, with, and by. These prepositions tend to make the sentence too long. Also, prepositions can destroy the rhythm of the sentence. Try reading one of your sentences and emphasizing with a loud voice every time you encounter a preposition. You will see how the rhythm can be destroyed.
When you calculate the Lazy Word Index, don't forget to omit the opening and closing paragraphs. The index seems to work better with the middle paragraphs. Also, avoid selecting passages that are bulleted or numbered. These exceptions allow you to calculate a "cleaner" Lazy Word Index.
To calculate the Lazy Word Index you need to establish six columns of data. These columns include:
- In column A multiply .05 (a constant) times the number of words counted.
- In column B you simply count the number of prepositions in the passage.
- In column A subtract the number of prepositions from the number achieved by your previous multiplication (.05). Make sure you don't have a negative number after you subtract.
- In column A take the minuend (the subtraction answer) and multiply by the constant, 1.5.
- Now you have your first gross value be combining the calculations in Columns A and B.
- In column C you count the number of times "it" is used and multiply by constant 4.
- In column D you count the number of times "this" is used and multiply by constant 2.
- In column E you count the number of times "there" is used and multiply by constant 4.
- In column F you count the number of times "and" is used and divide by constant 2.
- At this point you should now have five gross values to add.
After doing all these calculations, add the numbers for the columns, A and B, C, D, E, and F. If you find you have no uses of "this," for example, simply multiply zero times 2. Your total of these gross values should be divided by the number of words in the sample. That is your index.
The next step is to determine what the numbers mean. The Canadian index overlaps the numbers, such as .10-.15 and .15-.20. You would not find this overlap, usually, in the United States. A breakdown of the numbers is now given:
.00-.10 Unusually clear writing
.10-.15 Better than average writing
.15-.20 Adequate writing
.20-.25 Adequate, but wordy writing
.25-.30 Considerable wordiness and vagueness
.30-above Some of the writing cannot even be read.
Be sure to tell what the numbers after you have done all your calculations. For example, tell that .115 means better than average writing. Again, remember that no index is perfect; indexes only serve as guides to our writing.
When Robert Gunning, a pioneer in business communications, was conceiving the Fog Index, he wanted something that would take the "fog" or the "smog" out of your writing. He based his index on average sentence length. You can find an illustration of this index in most textbooks we use for this class. Gunning, especially, concentrated on the difficult or words of three syllables or more (with exceptions). Please check the links for the fog index and the Bonneville Power article called "Write to Reach Your Readers". These links adds some additional material that may be helpful. Many links exist about the Gunning Fog Index, and you need to search for them under an appropriate search engine, such as google.com.
Why should we write at the sixth grade level? That is not the proper question to ask. It is not wrong to write at the sixth grade level, if the message is understood. In our classes we strive for the mythical 8-10th grade level of writing. That is to avoid writing copy that would take three doctorates or level of education to understand. We are not trying to imply a Dr. Seuss sentence you would find in Green Eggs and Ham. Also, you do not want to write to your boss: See Dick write. See Jane meet. We never want to insult our reader. However, the following example leaves a great deal to be desired with understanding. It is a sentence 51 words long. It was written as part of a memo to the the Head Deputy, Special Prosecution Team, District Attorney's Office, from the Deputy District Attorney, Special Prosecution Team. The sentence discusses the gang unit, known originally as C.R.A.S.H. in the Los Angeles Police Department:
Choose a grammar checker from your word processing program (e.g. Microsoft Word or Corel WordPerfect). Make sure the grammar checker prints word count, word choice, and other important items. Choose 100 words of your own writing of the first chapter (Introduction). If the grammar checker does not print the sample (the 100 words), print your own copy of the selected passages. You may also use the Accessories on Word and Paste the calculations. You will probably be using the Flesch-Kincaid formula in calculating your readability level.
The Coleman-Liau and Bormuth grade levels also exist in calculating your index.
"The Rampart C.R.A.S.H. conspiracy includes a heightened danger to the public welfare even beyond that which may be expected from conspiracies among law enforcement officers because the conspiracy was so extensive as to include intimidating witnesses to official wrongdoing from registering complaints with appropriate authorities further insulating the conspiracy from discovery" (Beth Barrett and Greg Gittrich, "Garcetti Had No Clue on Memos," Daily News, March 26, 2000, p. A1).
Can you see from the previous sentence with too many modifiers and clauses how confusing the level becomes? The readability is lost to pack the message in a long sentence.
Indexes, such as Gunning Fog and Linsear Write, only give us an indication of where our level of readability might be. You don't want to impress someone with your vocabulary in a memo, for example, when you are trying to get a simple message across. We can save our vocabulary for other times and other places, such as presentations or conversation, to prove we are an educated person. You often prove you are an educated person when you can communicate with a layperson or a top executive. People expect messages delivered quickly with simple words in a fast-moving business.
The American Management Associations quite a few years ago published a three-ring binder about management report writing. In this voluminous document the Association created a series of steps to help people write reports. Step 5 concerned measuring the language level of your report. As you know, most readability indexes usually encourage the user to find 100 words of some passage. In the Flesch Formula, detailed in The Art of Readable Writing and How to Test Readability, the author broke down the steps of his formula this way:
I suspect the formula you have just read about comes close to the Flesch-Kincaid formula mentioned and used with Microsoft Word. Anyhow, you now have one more readability formula you may use to analyze your own writing.
For years the jury summons questionnaire, especially in the San Fernando Valley, has needed reforming. If one remembers the old form, it asked questions about eligibility to serve and pertinent personal data. The new form (now gone through four revisions) is a 11 x 17 monstrosity that tries to ask everything that will make the juror eligible. In fairness to the system, the jury summons form has needed revising. However, now even the instructions on how to fold the form have become incomprehensible. Elderly people, for example, visit the Van Nuys Superior Court and ask how to fill out the form. Judge Lance Ito of O.J. Simpson Trial fame, even filled out the form incorrectly (David Colker, "Jury Summons Is Guilty of Confusion," Los Angeles Times, 3 April 2000, A (Main), p. A1).
- Count the words in your sample.
- Count the number of sentences.
- Find the average number of words per sentence. Divide the number of words by the number of sentences.
- Count the number of syllables (as you would Pronounce the words)in the first 100 words.
- Multiply the average sentence length by 1.015.
- Multiply the number of syllables by .846 (Step 4).
- Add these figures.
- Subtract your result from 206.835, and check your result against the following chart:
90 to 100. . . . .5th grade
How would you like to find your "human interest" score with the Flesch formula? Let's first define the meaning of personal words:
80 to 90. . . . . 6th grade
70 to 80. . . . . 7th grade
60 to 70. . . . . 8th to 9th grade
50 to 60. . . . . 10 to 12th grade (high school)
30 to 50. . . . . 13th to 16th grade (college level)
0 to 30. . . . . college graduate.
Personal words include all first, second, and third-person pronouns except the neuter pronouns it, its, itself, and they, them, their, theirs, themselves if referring to things rather than people.
Personal words also include words that have masculine or feminine natural gender (e.g. John Jones, Mary, father, sister, iceman, actress). Most of these words should eliminated through gender consciousness. Do not count common-gender words like teacher, doctor, employee, assistant, spouse. Count singular and plural forms of words that have masculine or feminine natural gender. In one instance, personal words include group words, such as people (with the plural verb) and folks. Now, are you ready to find the human interest score? Here are the steps:
- Multiply the number of personal words per 100 words by 3.635.
- Multiply the number of personal sentences per 1,000 sentences by .314.
- The human interest score will put your piece of writing on a scale between "0" (no human interest) and 100 (full of human interest). The human interest scale measures percentages (the more "personal" words and sentences, the more human interest). The readability formula measures length rather than percentages.
When you consider 4.5 million jurors are eligible for service, the form has to be understandable. The text-laden summons form no longer resembles the fairly easy to fill out original. Officials and committees charged with revising the form packed as much material on the form as possible. This created monster now, according to Judge Jacqueline Connor, may take two minutes to decipher (Los Angeles Times, 4 April 2000, p. A14). The form has become a work in progress with focus groups and others helping in suggested revisions. At the moment, $50,000 has been spent on a three-month supply of a form "in progress." The well-intentioned efforts of a jurors' committee and the Department resulted in a form with part of the jurors' handbook. That information had to be eliminated. People wanted to know everything about what it takes to qualify for jury service. That was too much information for the form to handle.
Note on Update: As far as we know now, the form has been improved and is considerably easier to fill out.
Please check the home page for additional help and other links.
Last updated Wednesday, November 15, 2006