Learning how to write

I don’t know about you but I take writing for granted.  I learnt to do it at school and bar a bit of guidance when I was at uni I’ve never really thought about techniques for writing properly.  So when I was offered a place on a ‘business writing’ workshop I wasn’t too sure what to expect.

Now, having spent the day with a guy who’s job is technical writing I’m almost embarrassed about how little I know – and how much there is to learn.  For example, I had no idea there was a way of measuring the readability of text.  It had never occurred to me that there might be a way of scoring how easy a document is to read.

There are a few different readability measures out there, but the one I learned about today was based on the Gunning-Fog Index (its not quite the same).  In effect it works out a score from the number of words, sentences and complex words.

Index = (Total Words / Sentences) + 100(Complex Words / Total Words)

  Total Words     = The total number of words
  Sentences       = The total number of sentences
  Complex Words   = The number of words with three syllables
                    or more, excluding those ending with 'ed'
                    and 'ing' and counting pro-nouns only
                    once.

This formula gives you a score that you can assess your writing with and compare with other text.  A good measure would be to compare text with that of a news paper for example.

Another new discovery for me today (and I feel a bit stupid about this one) is that newspapers have a specific, and consistent, level of readability.  This level is matched to their subject matter and reader demographic.  Here in the UK, the Financial Times has an index of ~41 (as measured with this method) and the low end tabloids drop to something like 22.  The Guardian has an index of ~34, as does the Independent.

As the formula is based on two factors – sentence length and percentage of complex words – texts with the same index scores could still be very different to read.  For example anyone who has read the Guardian and the Independent will know they’re very different papers.

Average Sentence Length % of Complex Words Readability Index
18 16 34
20 14 34
22 12 34
24 10 34
26 8 34

This difference is down to the tone of the writing.  From what I saw today a 2:1 ratio of average sentence length to the percentage of complex words seems to give a good natural tone.  Too far in either direction and the tone either becomes too simplistic or too ‘wordy’.

So what use is all of this then?  Well being able to measure the readability and  tone of things you write should help target the piece to your intended audience.  If yon know who will be reading your doc, and even the individual sections within it, you can work the writing to best get your message across.

Whilst I’m sure all this is all pretty basic stuff and based on my own interpretation and assumptions, I thought it was a fascinating subject.  I wish I’d thought about it before today to be honest!  All in all it was an interesting day.

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