Increasing readability (1)

A friend who edits a magazine for a specialist international organization asked me how she could get her authors to make more effort to write texts intelligibly.

She doesn't have time to edit or train them. So she emailed around to her writer friends for advice. I sent her back this note:

The first thing I can suggest is that you ask people to apply a Readability test to their prose. It is commonly used in preparing textbooks and the Flesch test (the most famous) was used in news agencies to make copy easier to understand.

It comes free with Word but it is difficult to get at. It's much easier to offer people a macro that will do the job of checking a document for its readability (I give you the one I developed below, adapted for Word 97).

The description of the Flesch system of scoring makes it clear that sentences with one syllable words and no complex subordinate clauses get higher scores than conventional UN prose. Shorter sentences (under 20 words) raise the score higher.

You can set a grade level (perhaps the recommended 7) as the point beyond which writers would be asked to re-examine their texts to shorten sentences and break up complex sentences. Be aware, though, that texts scored as "most readable" on Websites were the hardest to use, according to a survey of users by Jared M. Spool and colleagues (Web Site Usability: A Designer's Guide, 1999:71-2).

Flesch's other recommendations are to be found in How to Write, Speak and Think More Effectively(1946-1960), though I think it should be Think, Speak and Write More Effectively.

He has 25 rules of effective writing:

  1. Write about people, things, and facts
  2. Write as you talk
  3. Use contractions
  4. Use the first person
  5. Quote what was said
  6. Put yourself in the reader's place
  7. Don't hurt the reader's feelings
  8. Forestall misunderstandings
  9. Don't be too brief
  10. Plan a beginning, middle, and end
  11. Go from the rule to the exception, from the familiar to the new
  12. Use short names and abbreviations
  13. Use pronouns rather than repeating nouns
  14. Use verbs rather than nouns
  15. use the active voice and a personal subject
  16. Use small, round figures
  17. Specify. Use illustrations, cases, examples
  18. Start a new sentence for each idea
  19. Keep your sentences short
  20. Keep your paragraphs short
  21. Use direct questions
  22. Underline for emphasis
  23. Use parentheses for casual mention
  24. Make your writing interesting to look at 
  25. Now the science bit