At university I barely survived maths, totally sucked at accounting, and wasn’t much better at economics. And despite working at a statistical agency for 20 years I still have no idea how to work out standard deviation. (Or any other deviation for that matter.)
So for years I resisted Microsoft Word’s “Readability Statistics” option. The only information I found useful was the word count, which I could get another way. After all, how can a computer possibly calculate how “readable” something is?
Pretty well, it turns out.
These days I use it all the time. Not while I’m writing, because the last thing I want is to interrupt the flow of words. (If you can call it that. Sometimes it feels more like a trickle.)
But when I start editing, either my own words or someone else’s, the first thing I do is bring up the numbers. And I check them throughout the editing process to make sure I’m on the right track.
No, they don’t turn me into Hemingway (or even a bad imitation of him). But nine times out of ten they help me improve my writing.
And they can improve your writing as well. Here’s how.
Writing by numbers
First of all, ignore the Counts section. The only remotely useful number there is the word count, and unless your editor has given you one I wouldn’t worry about it. As I said in my last blog post, there’s more to length than just the number of words.
The Averages section is where it gets interesting.
One piece of writing advice I’ll always remember comes from Stephen King: one idea per sentence, one idea per paragraph. And the next two numbers help you follow that advice.
If the Sentences per Paragraph figure is high, you may be trying to cram more than one idea into a paragraph. (For me, anything above three is a warning sign. Remember, we’re talking averages here.) If you see a paragraph that looks long, see if you can split it. Not only will it be more logical, the extra white space will make it easier to read.
It’s the same with the Words per Sentence figure. If it’s too high (anything above 15 for me), you may have a killer sentences that includes everything but the kitchen sink. (The worst I’ve ever seen was 83 words long, with no punctuation other than the full stop at the end.)
That doesn’t mean you have to make every sentence short. Some sentences need to be longer than others. (My ‘kitchen sink’ sentence is 22 words—seven words longer than my preferred average.) But if the average is high you may well have some monsters that need slaying—or at least splitting/shortening.
The Characters per Word figure is all about word choice. A high number here could mean you’ve chosen complicated words instead of simple ones. And my last blog post explains why complicated words are a bad idea.
Of course, in some cases this number will be high for good reason. If you’re writing for a specialised industry, you may have to use specific terms that have no simple equivalent. But if you’re writing for a general audience, try to keep it below five.
And finally we get to the Readability section.
Remember when your English teacher taught you about sentences being active (“The boy threw the ball”) or passive (“The ball was thrown by the boy”)? In nearly every case, active sentences are better than passive ones. And this number will tell you what percentage of your sentences are in passive voice.
Now don’t panic if it isn’t zero. As much as you’d like your sentences to be active, sometimes they have to be passive to make sense. But if it’s any more than 30% I’d start worrying. (Personally I aim for less than 10%.)
I’m not even going to try explaining the mathematics behind the Flesch Reading Ease and Flesch-Kincaid Grade Level figures. All you really need to know is you want the first to be high (70-100) and the second to be low (5-8).
Lies, damn lies and statistics
As you can see, the readability statistics aren’t so scary after all. And they can help you improve your writing.
But just because the numbers are good doesn’t mean your writing is (and vice-versa). Use them as a guide, not a blueprint.
(And if you’re wondering how this post scores, the numbers are in the graphic.)