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the Fog! The Readability Factor
by Susan J. Letham
Dear Ms. Author,
Thank you for submitting your manuscript to
The topic is relevant to our target
readership and your
style is good, however, the text requires
regard to readability. We shall be pleased to
revised version at your earliest convenience.
A. N. Editor
You've got the message. They like it, they want it. You'll
gladly give it to them, but what on earth is
Readability is about how clear your message is and how
it is for an average reader to understand. Readers should
able to read what you write without stumbling over
complicated words. The text should carry your message, but
not get in the way of your reader's ability to understand
that message. In other words, she shouldn't have to read a
Readability levels are based on the average reading-skills
of people who've completed different stages of education,
e.g., an average 14-year-old, a first-year college
a college graduate.
Experienced Web copywriters suggest that we gauge our
writing to an 8th grade (USA) readability level. That's
reading-level of an average 14-year-old. That way, we can
sure that almost everyone who speaks English as a first or
second language will be able to understand our message.
Luckily, there's a tool that can help us determine the
clarity of a text. That tool is the so-called 'fog-index',
a standard test of readability.
The version of the fog-index I'm going to introduce to you
here uses two criteria to measure readability; average
sentence length and the frequency of multi-syllable words
words of three syllables or more. Put simply, short
sentence length and short words make a text more readable.
The fog-index is easy to use. All you need are short text
samples and a simple calculator. Let's walk through the
instructions and then I'll show you two examples.
* How to use the Fog-Index
1) Choose several samples of approximately 100 words each.
The samples will usually be taken from
Complete steps 2, 3, and 4 for each
2) Calculate the average number of words in each sentence.
To do this, count the number of
sentences and divide the
total number of words in the sample by
the number of
sentences in the sample. 100 words:5
in each sentence *on average*.
3) Count the number of words that have three or more
Ignore nouns with capital letters (city
names, people's names, etc.)
Ignore combination words like
'bottleneck' or 'tabletop'.
These are terms that could be expressed
bottle's neck, the neck of the bottle,
on top of the
table. If a term looks like a
combination, test to see if
you can express it differently.
'Neighbourhood' may look
like a combination but it isn't for our
isn't another way to say neighbourhood
using the same
word components. We can't describe
neighbourhood as 'hood
of the neighbour'. Another example of a
word we'd include
is 'freewriting' because it's a term in
its own right.
Ignore words that end with '-ed' or '-es'
if the ending
is the third syllable, for example
'edited' (ed-it would
have only two syllables) and excuses
(ex-cuse would have
only two syllables). Most words with
these endings will
be past tense verb forms and plurals.
If, however, you
have a word like 'catapulted', it will
because it's still a multi-syllable
even without the '-ed' ending. This
process is much
easier than it sounds. Try it and see!
4) Add the average number of words per sentence and the
number of words with 3 or more
syllables and multiply
your result by 0.4. All it takes is a
second if you're
using your calculator.
5) Repeat the process with further samples from the
manuscript. The results of each sample
can be added
together and averaged. To do this, add
quotients of all evaluated samples and
divide by the
number of samples used. You'll find an
In most cases, you'll have a result
8-20. Here's what your result means.
Under 10 - Your writing is very easy to
read. This is the
level you should aim for when writing for most
- The average 15-year-old should be able to
understand this level of writing.
11-13 - This writing
can be understood by the top 20%
14-16 - A first year
college student should be able to
understand this level of readability.
17-20(+) - This writing requires a
standard of comprehension.
Now let's look at three examples of how that works in
practice. If you have your calculator handy, you'll be
able to follow the process and see how it works.
You can suggest a series of articles about neighbourhood
restaurants or bars, or a feature about local bookstores,
hairdressing and cosmetic salons. You can even include
family and friends in your research. Ask them where they
shop and why. Don't forget the seasonal markets; First
Communions, Bar Mitzvahs, June weddings, Easter and
Christmas Fairs. Is a local celebrity about to get
Do certain stores have seasonal promotions planned? You
almost research as you shop if you keep your eyes and ears
open and make a point of talking to storekeepers and staff
when things are quiet.
* 'Storekeepers' doesn't count because we could write
'people who run or keep or own stores'.
Word count: 99 words
Sentence count: 7 sentences
Average words per sentence: 14 (rounded)
Words with three or more syllables: 8
Formula: 14 + 8 = 20 x 0.4 = 8 Very easy to read.
The excerpt is from an article in Wordweb eZine. This
of readability was appropriate because Wordweb is read by
writers of all ages, many of whom speak English as a
Freewriting is designed to short circuit the inner critic.
The inner critic is not all bad though. In fact, it has a
very useful role to play outside the creative phase of
writing. The critic can proof read, alter sentence and
paragraph construction and check that what you've written
makes sense or follows a plot. The creative aspect of self
has a very hard time doing these kind of tasks. Our aim is
to have both aspects, the creator and the critic, work
together to support you when you write instead of fighting
one another and blocking you.
Word count: 98 words
Sentence count: 5 sentences
Average words per sentence: 20 (rounded)
Words with three or more syllables: 7
Formula: 20 + 7 = 27 x 0.4 = 10.8 Average 15-year-old.
This sample is from a Wordweave workshop module. The level
of readability is marginally above the suggested
for online use (average 14-year-olds). However, as writers
usually have an above-average command of language, this is
acceptable and still well within tolerance.
* How to average scores
If these samples had both been from one manuscript*, you'd
proceed to find the average for the entire manuscript as
1) Add the sample readability level results
Sample #1 8.0 + Sample #2 10.8
2) Divide the total by the number of samples evaluated (3)
18.8:2 (samples evaluated) =
Readability level 9.4
This writing is very easy to read. This
is the level you
should aim for when writing for most
* Note: In reality, you'd use more than two samples.
You can use the fog-index tool to determine the
levels of various newspapers, books, and magazines. Check
the average readability levels of magazines and books
published by houses to which you'd like to submit. Most
publishers target specific markets and they've done their
readability research. This technique can help you tailor
your writing to the level of readability your publisher--
and your reader--needs.
Best of all, you can use the formula to check your own
for readability levels and adjust them for the target
in each case. If you want to improve text readability,
a text easier to read, reduce the average number of words
per sentence and replace words of three or more syllables
with shorter alternatives. For online writing, aim for a
readability index of 9-10.
So, if Ms. Author can find out what level of readability
A.N. Editor's readers need and edit her text to fit,
soon be laughing all the way to the bank to cash her
© 2000 Susan J. Letham
Susan J. Letham is a British writer, multimedia author,
Creative Writing lecturer. Visit Inspired2Write and sign
for quality writing classes and competent 1-on-1 coaching.
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