Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Readability Stats 101: Are They Useful?

Posted by Jerry

I am a recovering scientist.  In my prior life, I wrote copiously, with erudition and replete with $50 words – copious, erudite and replete among them.  I even won awards for writing arcane trivia with a lavish lexicon.

As I started into literary nonfiction, however, a senior editor advised me to cut the crap.  She said my work would be publishable only if written at the 7-8th grade comprehension level and if I got my characters per word down below 4.5.  Then a nonfiction writing professor told me, in rather pithy terms, that readability stats would not make me a good writer, that they were a distraction, and that I was wasting my time.  I felt caught in the middle.

So, I set out to solve this dilemma. I gathered 1000 word samples from the godparents of nonfiction, those writers I strove to emulate.  On my list were Annie Dillard, Barry Lopez, Rick Bass, Jon Krakauer, Barbara Kingsolver, Joan Didion, Terry Tempest Williams, and others.  I also sampled more than 50 others for comparison, including contest winners, and essays in selected literary journals.   I ran each sample through the best of the on-line readability calculators, available at .

The results surprised me. A strong, narrowly defined pattern emerged.  Averages for each group (nonfiction godparents, edited literary journals, and contest winners) fit these parameters, almost without exception.  The editor had been right.  Characters per word averaged below 4.5 in all cases.  Sentences were short, punchy, averaging between 15.1 and 16.6 words. Average grade levels measured a nearly identical 7.7 and 8.0. Lesser known authors violated every one of these parameters, always in the direction of higher numbers.

Common readability measures use various formulas but most have only two components: words per sentence and syllables per word.  Both can be counted by computer, no qualitative judgement needed. Readability, by these measures, rests on simple sentences composed from simple words.  Complex or compound sentences are out. As are multisyllabic words, like “multisyllabic” or “readability” for that matter.

The English professor was also right.  Readability stats cannot turn anyone into a great writer.  Soul and substance are key, and the art and craft that captures these in a latticework of words makes for greatness.  But, like chalk lines on a sports field, readability stats set the boundaries within which the game is played.  And, like it or not, editors and agents have come to expect submissions to fall within these gridlines, making them the new ad hoc rules of the game.

What are your own readability stats?  Compare a first draft with a finished product, or one you had accepted with one of your rejects.


Lynn said...

You convinced me, and I am definitely NOT a recovering scientist. In fact, I usually say "skip the stats, just tell me." I'm more convinced by emotion than facts. True to form, I was more convinced by the list of authors (many of them my absolute favsorites)than anything else. :)

Those are some folks I want to emulate!

Jerry Eckert said...

Lynn: Stay tuned. As Paul Harvey would have said, "The Rest of the Story" will be posted next week.

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