Thursday, April 23, 2009

Is Your Writing Readable? You May Be Surprised

All this talk lately about 50 cent words and texting horrors has me thinking about readability stats and scores, in particular. Have you ever checked the readability score after you finished writing something? Don’t know what I’m talking about? Read on...

Readability tests are just that – they test the readability of your writing. Then, they give you a score. Plain Language goes into the history and explanation of these tests, but here’s the gist of it:

- Reading Ease – ‘measures reading from 100 (for easy to read) to 0 (for very difficult to read). A zero score indicates text has more than 37 words on the average in each sentence and the average word is more than 2 syllables. Flesch has identified a "65" as the Plain English Score.’

Wikipedia shows it this way:

90.0–100.0 easily understandable by an average 11-year old student
60.0–70.0 easily understandable by 13- to 15-year old students
0.0–30.0 best understood by college graduates

Here are some Reading Ease stats:

Reader's Digest - 65
Time magazine – 52
Harvard Law Review- in the low 30s
Gettysburg Address - 46
Anita’s blog (eff Apr 22nd) – 60
The Prairie Chick’s blog (eff Apr 22nd) – 56

Juicy Studio, talks about the other 2 readability tests, the Flesch-Kincaid Grade Level Score and the Gunning-Fog Index:

- Flesch-Kincaid Grade Level Score ‘is a rough measure of how many years of schooling it would take someone to understand the content. Negative results are reported as zero, and numbers over twelve are reported as twelve.'

According to Freelance Writing Success, Michael Masterson talks about the success rate of newsletter subscribers: ‘There was a direct relationship between simplicity and success. The writers who had the lowest Flesch-Kincaid scores had the highest renewal rates.’

He goes on to say, ‘The best tool I’ve found to measure simplicity is the Flesch-Kincaid grading scale. . . . Most magazine and newspaper writing falls between grade levels 8.0 and 12.0. Academic and scientific text is generally in the 10.0 to 14.0 range. Dialog tends to be graded at the 4 to 6 levels. The text you have been reading so far in this rewritten article, for example, achieves a grade of 7.8.’

Flesch-Kincaid stats - ideally 6-7, the lower the score, the more readable the text:
- Gettysburg Address - 13
- Anita’s blog (eff Apr 22nd) – 5.82
- The Prairie Chick’s blog (eff Apr 22nd) – 6.53

- Gunning-Fog Index is a ‘rough measure of how many years of schooling it would take someone to understand the content. The lower the number, the more understandable the content will be to your visitors. Results over seventeen are reported as seventeen, where seventeen is considered post-graduate level.’ According to the Using English website, you calculate the Gunning Fog Index like so: - take your avg nbr of words per sentence and add your percentage of words containing 3 or more syllables. Multiple this nbr by 0.4. Gunning Fog Index Stats (Using English) Ideally, web page text should be between 11 and 15 on this scale. The lower the score, the more readable the text.:

- The New York Times – avg index of 11-12
- Time magazine – avg 11
- most technical documentations – between 10 and 15
- Gettysburg Address - 20
- Anita’s blog (eff Apr 22) – 9.25
- Prairie Chick’s blog (eff Apr 22) – 10.1

And finally, anyone who uses Microsoft Word has the tool for gathering the readability statistics:

1. On the Tools menu, click Options, and then click the Spelling & Grammar tab.
2. Select the Check grammar with spelling check box.
3. Select the Show readability statistics check box, and then click OK.
4. On the Standard toolbar (toolbar: A bar with buttons and options that you use to carry out commands. To display a toolbar, press ALT and then SHIFT+F10.), click Spelling and Grammar .

Because I use contractions and fragmented sentences, it takes a while to go through a complete chapter, so I check small amounts at a time. Here are my readability stats for the first page of my novel, Charley’s Saint:

In the Absolute Write Forums, James A Ritchie says, ‘The thing to remember is that grade level score does not mean your fiction is written for that grade level. A grade level of 5 does not even mean a fifth grader can understand the content, only that a fifth grader can actually read the words. The typical newspaper is written at grade level six or seven, and the average pro writer writes at about the same level. Hemingway typically wrote at grade level five, and most of Stephen King's work I've run through WordPerfect come out about grade level seven. Writing at a grade level of ten does not mean you're writing well, it means it takes a tenth grader to read all the words. Not usually a good thing for fiction. For most fiction, I would be a bit worried with a grade level below five, just as I would a grade level above nine. I think it's a good thing to run books by writers you like through the Fleisch-Kincaid test on your word processor. Fleisch-Kincaid can't tell you whether you write well or write poorly, but it is a good indicator that some problems exist.’

So, here’s your assignment - do the spell check on MS Word and tell us what your Readability scores are for the first page of your current wip.
If you don’t have MS Word, go to Juicy Studio and type in your blog address.
If you're not a writer, google your favourite author and look for an excerpt of the first page and do the same thing.
What do you think about readability tests?


Captain Hook said...

Okay. I was all set to hate you for making me test my writing this way. But then I realized, of course my scores are going to be way different than any mentioned. Most of what I write is written for MG and YA.

I am going to go test some YA and MG books. Wil report back.

Captain Hook said...

I think I need to go back to sleep. Tested a few YA books and forgot to look at the numbers before closing everything up!

Anita Mae Draper said...

Awh, Captain Hook, I know what you mean! I do that innumerable times. Glad to know I'm in good company. :)

Silver James said...

For my prologue (Just short of one page), the scores were:

Flesch Reading ease is an 85.6

Flesch-Kincaid Grade Level is 3.5

I'm not sure this is a good thing or a bad thing. LOL. I guess it means my writing is easy to understand.

Karen said...

Cool post, Anita. I must live under a rock because I had no idea MS had this option. It's quite interesting actually.

I did as you suggested and used the first page from my wip.

Here are my scores:
Flesch Reading Ease - 68.6%
Flesch-Kincaid Grade Level - 7.7

Anita Mae Draper said...

Hey Silver, I look at it to mean that any Jane Blow can pick up your book and have a satisfying read even if she doesn't have a high school education. I would think that's a good thing.

It also means however, that there's room for your writing to grow and still be within the average person's comprehension.

Anita Mae Draper said...

Karen, you do live under a rock... hehe

Actually, I didn't know about this either, until my CP pointed it out last year.

I just went to
which says: 'Strive to write all your documents at an 8th grade level or less! Nathanial Hawthorne said it best: "Easy reading is damn hard writing."
USAToday strives to write at a 6th grade level.
Readers Digest is a 5th grade level.
Time and Newsweek strive for 10th grade.
US News & World Report strives for 12th grade level.'

I'd say you're right on target, although above the grade level of the average Reader's Digest reader.

Hayley E. Lavik said...

Very interesting post Anita, a practical way to look at it.

I'd be interested to run some of my favourite authors through there, compare the lit and genre writers etc.

Ran Eventide Unmasked through, and got these results:

Gunning Fog Index 11.26
Flesch Reading Ease 52.03
Flesch-Kincaid Grade 7.47

I find it interesting how different the two grade levels are.

Tested a recent chapter I'm polishing (as it reflects my writing style now as opposed to my writing style in the beginning):

Flesch Reading Ease: 68.6
Flesch-Kinkaid Grade Level: 8

Any my first 250 from the SRW critique:

Flesch Reading Ease: 89.4
Flesch-Kinkaid Grade Level: 3.2

Interesting to compare the difference between tones of a scene, and when I'm consciously writing with the expectation of critique.

Karen said...

The other benefit of this function is the passive writing percentage. This could potentially be quite helpful.

BTW - I am now obsessed with these ratings!

Captain Hook said...

My books (which all fall in the 8-25 age range) rate the following:

Flesch Reading Ease - between 80-94%
Flesch-Kincaid Grade Level - 2.0-3.0

Anita Mae Draper said...

Wow, Hayley, now that is interesting.

Are you trying to say you lower yourself when you speak to us? LOL

Anita Mae Draper said...

No, no, no, Karen, you're not supposed to take these as gospel.

They are just another tool in your writer's kit. But I guess, if you've just discovered it, you might want to play until the novelty wears off. *grin*

I agree about the passive writing but then, I have my grammar control on all the time so whenever I see a green line, I know it's usually passive writing which I have a problem with and I fix it right away. But not always. Sometimes I leave it on purpose.

Anita Mae Draper said...

Captain Hook, it sounds like you're right where you should be. Good job!

Now, didn't that just make your day, eh. :)

Hayley E. Lavik said...

Reading Karen's comment, with some revisions lately, I find I've been really conscious about the grammatical decisions I make. Your post on writing terms, Anita, and the general exploration of language have made me look at things whenever the green bar comes up, etc, and I feel confident in the decisions I make.

For instance something happened to my mc during a hazy state of mind, so it's passive because she's not in a state to focus on the subject. I've been conscious whenever I use repeated beginnings for my sentences, and I recently discovered a new term: aposiopesis, which I used in my first 250 sample. From ye old wiki: a rhetorical device wherein a sentence is deliberately broken off and left unfinished to be supplied by the imagination, giving an impression of unwillingness or inability to continue.

No Anita, I'm not lowering myself ;) I kept my sentences for the 250 critique really crisp and tight, because I figured I should catch excess flowy language before others jumped on it, and also because the book moments in an active moment so I didn't want to bog down the pacing. My blog's language also ends up scoring more toward ideal readability because I make a point of writing conversationally, rather than as I narrate. In a blog, it would just sound like I'm high on myself.

Going back to Connie's post though, if these tests tell us an 8th grader can read the words... are they referring to an eight-grader today? With the sort of vocabulary gaps I've encountered ("what's a freighter?" from a 16-year-old), I have little faith these days :)

Jana Richards said...

Hi Anita,
Interesting blog. So I did the stats on the first page of my current WIP and I'm not sure I like the results or not.

Flesch Reading ease 81.2
Flesch-Kincaid Grade level 4.8

These seem kind of on the low end to me, almost too simplistic. Makes me think I should throw in a couple of big words just to bring my average up!


Anita Mae Draper said...

Hayley - thank you for telling us about another rhetorical device. I believe I've used this one, too without knowing what it was.

You make a good point about the conversational aspect of a blog. And yet, if I'm reading my own stats on the post right, I'm reversed and my blog is harder to read than my story. Strange.

Janet C. said...

I wasn't going to do it - no way, I thought, I already spend too much time surfing the net, playing with random generators, refreshing my e-mail!

Ha, that didn't last long. Yep, I succumbed to peer pressure. Plugged the first page of Lady Bells in and this is what I got:

Reading Ease - 77.7
Grade Level - 5.5

Then, I had to pick random pages - oh, that's my favorite scene, let's try that. Oh, the black moment, let's give that a whirl. Oh, I know, the sex scene, wonder where that will land on the charts. ARGH!

And I have no blog post for tomorrow. Thanks, Anita, thanks a lot.

(Great post, BTW)

Anita Mae Draper said...

Hey Jana, that's what I thought when I saw my stats.

But, I like the fact they are on the easy to read side rather than the hard. Like you said, I'm sure I can find some bigger words to throw in there wheras I would really dislike having to replace 50 cent words with 5 cent ones.

Nice to see you, Jana.

Anita Mae Draper said...

But Janet - your scores are almost identical to mine! But, how can that be? You're such an eloquent, descripture writer. I'm feeling better by the minute. :)

How can you blame me for not having a blog for tomorrow? You say that sometimes my post sparks an idea for you. Mine's been up since 1 or 2 am. Surely something has given you an idea. Even if its just to talk about the time people waste playing with their stats instead of writing. Not that there's anyone I know of who does that, hehe.

And anyway, how could these stats be perceived as accurate when there's so many variables to be taken into consideration, eh? Did you think of that when you were re-reading-- er -- qualifying your sex scene stats? :0