Sunday, September 23, 2012

Is Your Writing Readable?

Some novice writers think that the more abstruse their writing is (and filled with technical jargon), the more knowledgeable they will appear.
If you’ve read my other posts on the topic, you know that I think the opposite is true.  The mark of a skilled author is the ability to write simple, concise narratives that provide clear, unambiguous interpretations of their work.  This characteristic is true of both the technical writer (e.g., of scientific papers) and the writer of non-technical articles.  However, if your target audience is the non-specialist, you need to strive for even clearer, jargon-free writing.
In previous posts, I’ve talked at length about various writing topics (you can do a search on “writing” to find them on this blog).  In this post, I’d like to mention a useful tool that can be used to assess and improve the readability of your writing, whether for technical or popular outlets.
The tool I’m talking about is the “readability statistics” found in some word-processing programs, including Word.  This function is found within the Grammar and Spell-Checking option.  The readability statistics function is not turned on by default, but you can activate it by selecting Options under the Tools menu (or Preferences for the Mac).  You then select the Grammar and Spelling tab and check the box “show readability statistics”.  Then all you do is select Spelling and Grammar under the Tools menu in Word, and you will automatically get readability statistics for any text you select.  
The two readability indices are the Flesch Reading Ease Score and the Flesch-Kincaid Score.  The Flesch Reading Ease Score rates text on a 100 point scale; the higher the score, the easier it is to understand the document; and for most non-technical documents, you want to aim for a score around 60 or 70.  The Flesch-Kincaid Score rates text on a US school grade level.  For example, a score of 8 means that an eighth grader can understand the document.  Note that earlier Microsoft Word versions artificially capped this at grade 12; the original formula extended the scoring to grade 17.  Later PC versions go above 12, but the Mac version has not been fixed to my knowledge. 
 Let’s give it a try with an example from the government website, Plain Language (for some hilarious reading, check this site out).  This is the “before” version of a government regulation: 
 “Under 25 CFR §1.4(b), the Secretary of the Interior may in specific cases or in specific geographic areas, adopt or make applicable to off-reservation Indian lands all or any part of such laws, ordinances, codes, resolutions, rules or other regulations of the State and political subdivisions in which the land is located as the Secretary shall determine to be in the best interest of the Indian owner or owners in achieving the highest and best use of such property.” 
 If we examine the readability statistics (left), we are not surprised to find that it gets a zero score for Flesch Reading Ease and a 12 for the Flesch-Kincaid score.    
 Here is how it was improved:
Section 1.4(b) of 25 CFR allows us to make State or local laws or regulations apply to your off-reservation lands. We will do this only if we find that it will help you to achieve the highest and best use of your lands.” 
 I think this version is more readable than the original, and the readability statistics confirm this.  The Flesch Reading Ease Score has been increased to 67.2 and a 9th grader should be able to understand it.
Let’s try a science example.  Here is a sentence from Margaret Mead’s “Coming of Age in Samoa” (which I’ve analyzed in a previous post): 
 "For it must be realised by any student of civilisation that we pay heavily for our heterogeneous, rapidly changing civilisation; we pay in high proportions of crime and delinquency, we pay in the conflicts of youth, we pay in an ever-increasing number of neuroses, we pay in the lack of a coherent tradition without which the development of art is sadly handicapped." 
Its Flesch Reading Ease Score is 29.3, and someone would need a 12th grade education (or higher) to understand it.  Part of the reason it gets a low score is that the sentence is long and convoluted.  If we change it a bit, we can raise the score:
 “Any student should realize that our complex and changing civilization costs us in terms of greater crime and more neuroses.  This situation leads to a lack of coherent traditions, which hampers the development of art”.
This revision raises the Flesch Reading Ease Score to 51.2 and a 10th grader should understand it.
Now, let me hasten to add that I’m just using this as an example of how these readability indices work.  I’m not suggesting that Mead’s sentence was poorly written and needed revision.  In fact, in my previous post, I used this example to illustrate the additive style of sentence construction….one that usually adds to the emotion or “atmosphere” of a piece.  
The point here is that you can use such readability indices to see how much mental effort a reader needs to exert to understand a statement you’ve written.  There are certainly limitations to the use of such indices, and there are critics (see this paper for a more detailed description of these indices and the main criticisms).  You definitely don’t want to write solely to meet these or other readability statistics, which have their limitations; you should always write to your audience and use common-sense in constructing your narratives.  However, I’ve found such statistics to be useful especially in taking a description and seeing if it would be understandable by a non-specialist.  
And there are other statistics given along with the two scores discussed above. 
Another useful bit of information that comes with the readability statistics is the number of passive sentences (see screenshots above).  Technical writing tends to use this type of construction, but should strive to use an active construction whenever feasible.  Word’s readability statistics includes an estimate of the proportion of passive sentences in a passage.
Many people are confused, however, about what is meant by active versus passive construction (see this post for more discussion).  People often think that an active construction involves the use of first-person pronouns: “We reviewed the data in multiple studies.” As opposed to : “The data in multiple studies were reviewed.”  Yes, these are examples of active versus passive constructions, respectively, but not because of the personal pronoun.  The distinction is whether or not the action of the subject is expressed in the verb.   
To illustrate, here’s another example of a passive construction: “Increased salinity was found to cause a shift in species composition.” Here, the subject of the sentence receives the action expressed in the verb.  
 Here is the active construction of that sentence: “Increased salinity caused a shift in species composition. “ In this version, the subject of the sentence performs the action expressed in the verb.  No first-person pronouns are involved.
Unfortunately, the calculation of passive sentences in Word sometimes underestimates the percentage (for a longer discussion, see the reference above).  However, it’s still useful, especially if it encourages the writer to be aware of passive versus active sentence construction.  Overall, the active construction tends to be shorter and easier to understand.  It also leads to more dynamic writing that is more enjoyable to read.  Technical writing typically must fit into a word limit set by a journal.  By reducing the proportion of passive sentences, you can often reduce the word count of your document and at the same time increase its readability.  The total words in a passage, as well as number of words per sentence, are also given in the readability statistics.  These statistics can be very helpful when you need to reduce the length of your narrative.
If you’ve never tried the readability statistics offered in Word or other programs, give it a try, especially if you frequently get the criticism that your writing is difficult to understand. 


JaneB said...

Nice post! The second-last paragraph, though, I think you meant that ACTIVE sentences tend to be more concise and interesting?

DrDoyenne said...

Thanks for catching that...I changed the sentence around and neglected to replace "passive" with "active".