Writing Readably Doesn’t Mean You’re Stupid

Yesterday, I celebrated long writing. Today, I’m going to demonize it.

Fog Index Algorithm

The Fog Index Algorithm

My point yesterday was that long-form writing, such as a book, often engages readers effectively. But when it comes to words and sentences, length can be a reader’s enemy.

I hadn’t planned on this follow-up today. What spurred me on was a column by Meghan Daum in this morning’s Los Angeles Times. Headlined “Speaking down to Americans,” it discusses a recent study by the Sunlight Foundation analyzing the grade level of speeches by members of Congress. The analytical tool used by the study is the Flesch-Kincaid readability test, which, as Daum puts it, associates long words and sentences with higher grade levels.

The misleading implication of those grade levels is that the higher your writing scores, the smarter you are. As a result, much of the press coverage of this study has interpreted it to mean that by using shorter words and sentences, politicians are either becoming dumber or speaking down to Americans.

And that, I first thought, was the gist of Daum’s column, which a possibly overworked copy editor had subtitled as follows:

“Researchers have found that politicians’ rhetorical skills have taken a dive since 2005, when they were at an 11th-grade level.”

It turns out, though, that Daum doesn’t really think that. In fact, she argues that the foundation’s data are meaningless: such studies, she says, “measure not meaning or depth of thought but characters and syllables and average number of words per sentence.” And she criticizes both those who fault legislators for speaking plainly and the foundation for doing the analysis:

“It seems disingenuous to mourn the passing of a time when you needed a 17th-grade education to understand what your president was saying. Not as disingenuous, however, as using a hopelessly reductive study to assail one’s political enemies in the most predictable way.”

So Daum seems to be in favor of readability, but blithely tosses aside the Flesch-Kincaid test as useless. Similarly, The Atlantic’s Eric Randall, while in favor of short words and sentences, suggests that the test promotes verbosity: “Flesch-Kincaid rewards long words and winding sentences, but clarity rewards the opposite.”

Well, no. Flesch-Kincaid doesn’t reward long words. It penalizes them. The entire point of using the test is not to raise the grade level of your writing, but to lower it.

The confusion is the inevitable result of the decision to tie writing skills to reading comprehension grade levels. I’m not quite sure whom to blame for this fatal mistake. It doesn’t seem to have been readability maven Rudolf Flesch, whose original readability index used a 100-point scale (the higher the score, the more readable the prose). The error may have been introduced by Robert Gunning, inventor (in 1952) of the Fog Index. The Flesch-Kincaid test, developed in 1975, followed Gunning in using grade levels to assess writing.

Whatever the source of the grade-level equivalence, it’s a problem. When I used to lead in-house seminars on readability for editors of technical magazines, descriptions of the grading system always backfired at first.

Our readers have PhD’s, they’d think. We’re smart too. We can write at grade 20! Bring on the 50-word sentences and sesquipedalian locutions!

The real goal, of course, is just the opposite. If you can write at grade-level 5, you should—not because you want to reach fifth-graders, but because even your doctoral readers will likely find such prose lucid, appealing, and memorable.

The same caveat applies today as yesterday, however: It all depends. Talented writers can reel off long, polysyllabic sentences to brilliant effect; inept writers can produce wretched short ones.

The smartest writers combine both approaches. It isn’t the length of any one sentence that matters—it’s the average over the course of several paragraphs or pages. Long words and sentences are not proscribed by Flesch-Kincaid. They just need  balancing with short ones.

The Flesch-Kincaid test or the Fog Index, used circumspectly, can help improve your writing. But remember this crucial point: you’re testing for readability—not for your intelligence.

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