Writing by numbers

numbersJane Penson has written an interesting blog about the Flesch reading ease index. So interesting in fact, that I’ve spent a large part of my lunch hour working out how ‘readable’ my own writing is.

The Flesch index is a formula that decides how easy it is to read your work. The formula is based on the length of your sentences and the number of syllables in each word – fewer words and fewer syllables equals easier reading. If you’re interested, there’s lots more info about how it works here.

The formula produces a score out of 100, with a score of more than 40 being reasonably clear. Maths enthusiasts may enjoy working out the score for themselves, but Microsoft Word will do it for you. Just select Tools > Options > Spelling and Grammar and tick the Show readability stats box. Your Flesch score will then appear after you’ve run a spelling and grammar check.

The good news for me was that a couple of pieces chosen randomly from the Carphone help section did well. This page explaining how broadband works scored 71.4, while this one about online billing got 73.1. According to Jane’s blog, a typical article from The Sun scored 62. As we’re using simpler language than Chelsea, 22 from Essex, it’s safe to assume we’re not baffling anyone with our verbosity.

The obvious question to ask is: ‘is the Flesch index useful?” Like all formulas, it only measures success according to a few select criteria, and with something as abstract and flexible as writing that doesn’t seem a good idea. The other problem with using Flesch is that you’re likely to end up manipulating your copy purely to get a better score, which isn’t necessarily conducive to the initial aim of making your writing clearer.

That said, I’m sure I’ll obsessively check my work from now on to see just how ‘readable’ I can become. There’s nothing like the introduction of a scorecard to get the competitive juices flowing. And in the interests of research, I did get a Flesch score for Sonnet 18 by Shakespeare. I was sure that nothing so old could fare well according to a ‘readability’ formula. It got 81.9.

Which goes to show that beauty definitely is simplicity. And that Flesch maybe has a point.

Sonnet 18

Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?

Thou art more lovely and more temperate.

Rough winds do shake the darling buds of May,

And summer’s lease hath all too short a date.

Sometime too hot the eye of heaven shines,

And often is his gold complexion dimmed;

And every fair from fair sometime declines,

By chance, or nature’s changing course untrimmed.

But thy eternal summer shall not fade

Nor lose possession of that fair thou ow’st;

Nor shall death brag thou wand’rest in his shade,

When in eternal lines to time thou grow’st,

So long as men can breathe or eyes can see,

So long lives this, and this gives life to thee.

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12 responses to “Writing by numbers

  1. I enjoyed the Shakespeare – just what I needed on a Tuiesday afternoon!

    Might have to see how readable my stuff is though. I do have verbose tendencies.

  2. Y’know, I’d always wandered what that was!! Public service broadcasting at its best!

  3. I just checked one of my latest articles and got 49… that can’t be good. Definitely an interesting way of measuring readability, I’ll definitely be using it to check some of my future blog posts.

  4. Nice Shakespeare. My favourite, predictably, is the vicious one about a mistress’s eyes being nothing like the sun.

  5. PS: Chocolate Bourbon would be my “5 Star”

  6. A bit of Shakespeare is a great way to bring some culture to a Tuesday afternoon. And as your comments so pointedly demonstrate, he’s a much more interesting writer than me. What is nice is that our respective Flesch scores prove he’s only 14% better than me. If I can improve by 15% I’ll be the greatest writer in history.

    As for the bourbon / Jaffa Cake question, there is no debate. The Jaffa Cake will always stand alonside Shakespeare as one of Britain’s greatest acheivements. The bourbon is Christopher Marlowe good at best.

  7. Hey Rob
    I often use the scale to show potential clients how unreadable their copy is. Until recently 9 was the lowest. But some copy I was sent the other week scored a big fat zero! Really!

    I try and aim for 70 and above. But if it’s a complex corporatey website with lots of legal phrases or long job titles (!) 55 and over is pretty ok I reckon. :-)

    • I’d never thought of using it that way but that’s a really good idea. I always use the Plain English website if I need a crutch to beat an overly verbose writer with. But this is excellent as well.

  8. The Biscuit Injury Threat Evaluation carried out by researchers from Mindlab International as reported in the Sunday Times 13.9.09 found that the Jaffa Cake was the safest biscuit!
    Beware those close cousins of the bourbon- custard creams- they are the most dangerous.

  9. I get it, now your information is very well to know, I will bookmark your site.

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