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Thursday, September 5, 2013
Words and Language Toolbox

Readability: Dump dense and arcane writing

By Paula LaRocque

A constant challenge for media writers is translating for lay readers the dense and arcane writing from specialized fields such as science, business, medicine, law, education, etc. Those messages are often as important as they are unreadable, so they deserve the media’s careful attention.

Too often, however, important news from specialized fields is still difficult or even incomprehensible when presented to a lay audience. And it shows the same bad practices that made it unreadable in the first place.

What are those bad practices? Here are the usual suspects:

• A dreary march of long words, sentences and paragraphs.

• Sentences that "back in" with wordy dependent phrases, rather than subject/verb/object structures.

• Opening sentences burdened with heavy proper nouns.

• Untranslated or unnecessary jargon.

• Abstract rather than concrete terms.

• Visual clutter — acronyms, symbols, parenthetical intrusions.

When we pair those bad practices with demanding content, the result is writing that few understand and even fewer enjoy. Equally important, the kind of writing that results from such practices shifts the responsibility for understanding from writer to reader.

Fact is, when intelligent readers cannot understand a piece of writing on first reading — and without effort — the writer has not done his or her job. Why? Because the effort should be the writer’s, not the reader’s. The writer is the sender; the reader is the receiver. Readers do their share by bringing their adequate intelligence to the writer’s clear and careful words.

Notice that the “bad practices” above have to do with mechanics — that is, with form — rather than content. Although good content is king, it does demand keen intellect, and there’s no tip sheet or practice or device that will boost intelligence. (It’s more than possible to write perfectly clear but also perfectly idiotic sentences.) Still, good form enhances good content.

One aid to better form is Microsoft Word’s readability software. It will analyze writing for average sentence length, grade level, difficulty of vocabulary, a “reading ease” score and more.

And it will do all that with the click of a mouse. How does such information help? Studies show that clear writing has a sentence length average of below 25 words. They also show that a suitable reading ease score is above 50, and that most Americans — even the highly educated — prefer to read at a grade level of below 10.

If you’ve never discovered through such analysis where your writing style resides, it would be good to find out. Is your sentence length average 25 words, or 50? Is the grade level of your writing the 10th grade, or the 20th grade (requiring eight years of higher education)? Is your reading ease score 60, or 30? The differences between those numbers can also mean the difference between good and bad writing.

If you use Microsoft Word, you can find its readability software under “options.” Click the box to “show readability statistics” when you run the grammar- or spell-checker. (If you can’t find it, try Googling something like “turning on Word’s readability statistics.”)

Good professional writers of tough, specialized or technical material depend upon these computer aids. Admired science, business, medical, legal and academic writers tell me they try to keep their work below the ninth-grade reading level, whether news, feature or column. The important thing to know is that accessibility never dumbs anything down; it simply makes it clear — and at a single reading.

Consider: The challenges of the project notwithstanding — involving a large number of research subjects, and consuming a considerable amount of the budget of the sponsoring agencies, the US Department of Health and Human Services (US DHHS) and the National Institutes of Health (NIH) — the SACGHS believed it had ‘the potential to generate significant health benefits.’

This writing is unclear. It displays most of the “bad practices” above. It includes an 18-word passage that contains nothing but long, dense proper nouns and acronyms. But those are not part of the sentence’s main idea and could be held for a subsequent sentence.

What does Word say? We’ll look at sentence length, reading ease and grade level because these immediately affect clarity and readability.

Sentence length average: 54

Reading ease: 1.6

Grade level: 12.0

Please note that the grade level of 12.0 is falsely reassuring because that’s as high as this index goes. We can safely assume that a grade level of “12.0” is off the charts. This passage rewritten for clarity:

The committee said the project could produce major health benefits despite its challenges. Those include the project’s many subjects and its high cost to its sponsors.

Sentence length average: 13.0

Reading ease: 60.2

Grade level: 8.0

Another example: Firstly, it is my opinion that to develop win-win procedures, attitudes, and synergy, we have a strong need to strategize proactively— and that means rewarding and incentivizing all our staff so they will respond quickly and effectively to directly address our challenges and problems in the immediate future.

Again, this writing shows bad practices — and it is also cluttered with jargon, pretensions and buzz phrases.

Sentence length average: 48.0

Reading ease: 6.5

Grade level: 12.0

Rewritten: A staff incentive/reward plan could promote problem solving.

Sentence length average: 10.0

Reading ease: 44.4

Grade level: 9.5

For purposes of comparison, look at this writing, which I received from a friend visiting New Zealand. She is an editor and a fine writer. She never expects her reader to do her work. Whether she is writing for a technical or specialized audience or to a friend, her standards are impeccable: clean, spare words whose intent you grasp immediately.

Notice from the analysis that writing for a low grade-level in no way “dumbs down” the work. Rather, that sort of simplicity adds dignity and beauty as well as clarity. Jenny’s reading ease score of 77.8 is in the stratosphere. Even excellent writers figure if they score over 50, they’ve done OK.

Here’s the last paragraph of my friend’s email: It’s a chilly, overcast day here, quite still. Even the birds are subdued. A container ship has been anchored in the bay for hours, awaiting its turn at the dock. A woman on a single scull is slowly rowing across the full estuary.

Sentence length average: 10.8

Reading ease: 77.8

Grade level: 5.0

A final note. This column’s content is technical and difficult. It also includes samples of bad writing that drive down its overall readability scores. So I worked hard to keep the work accessible, with the following results:

Sentence length average: 14.1

Reading ease: 56.8

Grade level: 8.7

Do you think it is dumbed down?

Paula LaRocque is author of “The Book on Writing,” “On Words,” “Championship Writing” and a mystery novel, “Chalk Line.” Website: paulalarocque.com

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