Tuesday, February 26, 2013

Readability Stats: One Final Note

Post by Jerry

My earlier post explored readability measures that use only two data points; syllables per word and words per sentence. Two other measures can be informative. The first is the percent of passive voice in your writing. We all understand how dull the passive voice makes our prose. But did you know that Word will automatically  calculate your passive percentage? Click the Office button (top left), click Word Options (bottom of the drop down menu), click the Proofing tab, and at the bottom, enable “Show Readability Statistics.” After running Spell and Grammar check for your document or a part of it, a table gives these estimates. The percent passive is the least reliable guesstimate, but it is a good approximation and there is none better out there. Great prose comes as close to zero percent as possible. Anything under 4% is acceptable. Over 5% calls for a focused edit.

The last category, my favorite, gets after loquacious semanticists such as me, recovering academics with our vocabularies obfuscated by $50 words. Two indices are driven by the number of three syllable words or larger. The Gunning Fog Index labels your verbose material as fog for good reason. The other is more bluntly named, the Simple Measure Of Gobbledygook, or the SMOG index. Designed in California, no doubt. Both give grade level estimates.  Over 8.0 is not good.

Adding it all up, what do we have?  Great writing generally falls within these parameters. Average sentence length of between 12 and 18 words, forcing us to write mostly declarative simple sentences. Average word length under 4.6 characters or 1.5 syllables, preventing very many long words. If you hit these targets, your prose should reach an estimated grade level for full comprehension of 7.5 to 8.0. Finally, passive voice needs to be as close to zero as possible. Within the arena defined by these stats lies a vast playing field for your creativity to romp.

Have you estimated the percentage passive voice in any of your essays or fictional works?

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Great post! My editor is always on me to shorten my sentences, especially since I write action adventure.

And thanks for stopping by and saying hello!

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