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Cut the Fog! The Readability Factor

by Susan J. Letham

   Dear Ms. Author,

   Thank you for submitting your manuscript to 'Weekly

   The topic is relevant to our target readership and your
   style is good, however, the text requires editing with
   regard to readability. We shall be pleased to consider a
   revised version at your earliest convenience.

   Yours sincerely,
   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?'

Readability is about how clear your message is and how easy
it is for an average reader to understand. Readers should be
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
sentence twice.

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 student,
a college graduate.

Experienced Web copywriters suggest that we gauge our online
writing to an 8th grade (USA) readability level. That's the
reading-level of an average 14-year-old. That way, we can be
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 average
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 one manuscript.

    Complete steps 2, 3, and 4 for each sample separately.

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 sentences=20 words
    in each sentence *on average*.

3) Count the number of words that have three or more
    syllables but:

    Ignore nouns with capital letters (city names, country
    names, people's names, etc.)

    Ignore combination words like 'bottleneck' or 'tabletop'.
    These are terms that could be expressed differently: the
    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 purpose. There
    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 still count
    because it's still a multi-syllable word (cat-a-pult),
    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 the readability
    quotients of all evaluated samples and divide by the
    number of samples used. You'll find an example below.

    In most cases, you'll have a result somewhere between
    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
               online publications.
    10       - 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%
               of 16-year-olds.
    14-16    - A first year college student should be able to
               understand this level of readability.
    17-20(+) - This writing requires a university graduate
               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.

Example #1

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 your
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 married?
Do certain stores have seasonal promotions planned? You can
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 level
of readability was appropriate because Wordweb is read by
writers of all ages, many of whom speak English as a foreign

Example #2

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 guidelines
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  = 18.8

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 online publications.

* Note: In reality, you'd use more than two samples.

You can use the fog-index tool to determine the readability
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 texts
for readability levels and adjust them for the target market
in each case. If you want to improve text readability, make
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, she'll
soon be laughing all the way to the bank to cash her check.

2000 Susan J. Letham

Susan J. Letham is a British writer, multimedia author, and
Creative Writing lecturer. Visit Inspired2Write and sign up
for quality writing classes and competent 1-on-1 coaching.
Subscribe to Inspired2Write Newsletter (published monthly)

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