Writing Right with Dmitri: Checking Our Readability

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Writing Right with Dmitri: Checking Our Readability

Editor at work.

This month's Create topic has been Artificial Intelligence. This is an interesting subject, especially for writers. Does Artificial Intelligence have anything to teach us about writing?

Lately, I've been working on an educational writing project which requires vocabulary and syntax control. That's because the writing is aimed at U.S. middle schoolers: 11-13-year-olds. We need to make sure the language doesn't get in the way of their understanding of the subject material. Though come to think of it, that's always a good idea, even when writing for adults.

One of the ways to check the 'readability' of a text is to use an online tool. Which is, of course, Artificial Intelligence. After a bit, we writers found that the recommended 'free' online tool wasn't free any more: after a few tries, the website labelled you a 'heavy user', and started demanding money. Then we discovered that the same 'service' is offered by our MS Word programs, which we'd already paid for. Bob's yer uncle.

Can Artificial Intelligence tell me how easy my Stuff is to read? It thinks it can. And it offers helpful advice, such as 'Consider using more concise language.' I always love that passive-aggressive 'Consider'. Sometimes, I wish these tools had faces, so I could punch them. I almost miss that smug animated paperclip…

Checking your 'readability' with MS Word is easy. Just go to the REVIEW tab. In the upper left-hand corner (if you're using Word 365) it says 'Spelling & Grammar'. Click it. Let it nanny its way through your text and argue about spelling and foreign names with you. When it's finished insisting you need a comma here and a shorter sentence there, it will give up and give you a box containing your readability scores. The first score will tell you how easy to read your text is based on the Flesch Reading Ease Scale. The higher the Flesch number, the more transparent your text is. The second number is the Flesch-Kincaid Grade Level. This is very parochial, because it judges your readability by what U.S. school level should be able to understand your text. Please keep in mind that U.S. schools go from 1st grade to 12th, roughly 6 years old to 18. (I have no idea who Flesch and Kincaid are, but they rule.)

Just for laughs, I fed a few well-known texts into the Word program. Here's what it said.

  1. Lincoln's Gettysburg Address:

    Flesch Reading Ease: 65.0

    Flesch-Kincaid Grade Level: 10.9

    Passive Sentences: 40.0%

    65's a good score, but that grade level is above Obama's speeches. And those are a lot of passive sentences. Consider writing more concisely, Abe.
  2. F.D.R.'s First Inaugural Address:

    Flesch Reading Ease: 56.4

    Flesch-Kincaid Grade Level: 9.9

    Passive Sentences: 20.2%

    Lower grade level, but hey, it was the Depression. Better avoidance of passive sentences. Good thing: people felt helpless enough as it was. Of course, what this score doesn't take into account is that when Franklin Roosevelt gave this speech, hundreds of thousands of humans burst into tears of hope. That's not very scalable.
  3. Kurt Vonnegut, Slaughterhouse Five:

    Flesch Reading Ease: 65

    Flesch-Kincaid Grade Level: 8.5

    More readable than F.D.R., and even an eighth-grader can read it. IF the eighth-grader can find it. School boards around the country keep burning this book – a fact which is ironic on so many levels that we doubt the school boards in question have ever read the book.
  4. Philip K. Dick, The Man in the High Castle:

    Flesch Reading Ease: 78.7

    Flesch-Kincaid Grade Level: 4.5

    This is a fascinating set of statistics. Philip K. Dick's writing is both highly readable and accessible to primary school students. The analysis is based on passages like this one:
    I feel the hot winds of karma driving me. Nevertheless I remain here. My training was correct: I must not shrink from the clear white light, for if I do, I will once more re-enter the cycle of birth and death, never knowing freedom, never obtaining release. The veil of maya will fall once more.

    According to MS Word, my 10-year-old grandnephew should love this. I'm going to try it out on him.

Seriously, I think Philip K. Dick broke the Readability Index. Which is my point: tools like this have limited use. No, all that expensive software isn't going to write your novel for you. If it did, I'd be worried. Like CAD (Computer Aided Design), it doesn't replace the human brain. Ask Tavaron, our resident architect. Casually mention the word 'staircases' and say Dmitri sent you…

If you have a Word program, try this feature out. It's a useful proofreading tool. If you don't have a reason to pay for this service, as I do (filed under 'business expenses'), there's probably a trial subscription out there if you're curious. Just keep in mind: unlike spelling and basic grammar, readability can be up for discussion. One reader's newspaper is another's Philip K. Dick novel.

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