10 attributes of professional writers -- #4: Make it readable

"This is on the level of an 11 year old." That was the verdict of an article I'd written as part of a writing course I'd been invited to attend by a magazine I was writing for at the time. (And lest you assume that was because they regarded me as being in need of such a course, I feel compelled to point out that all of it's regular contributors had been included in the invitation!)

So was I cut to the quick, mortified, in despair? Quite the opposite: the task was to make intelligible an appallingly-written press release about a new computer program. By rendering it comprehendible by a child I had not only succeeded at the exercise, but made the information accessible by the majority of the UK’s population.

Now, it’s beyond the scope of this article to delve into how to make a document or article accessible, such as by using the active rather than the passive voice, and signposts and text-breakers like sub-headings, but take a look at Readability, a free guide published by The National Institute of Adult Continuing Education (NIACE), or listen to the Grammar Girl podcast. But assuming you’ve followed such good practice guidance, how can you check whether you’ve succeeded in making your text readable? Microsoft Word, and other word processors, have readability statistics built in, but there are three or four problems with these I think.

Firstly, you may use a word processor which does not have this feature.

Secondly, if you use Word, you’ll find that the readability statistics are embedded in the grammar checker, which means you have to either go through a laborious grammar check simply to check the readability stats, or fool the program by running the grammar checker but with all the rules disabled.

Thirdly, the results are neither easy nor intuitive to use: I always  have to use the built-in Help to remind myself what they mean.

Finally, the meaning of “readability” is not the same for adults and children. That is to say, it’s possibly misleading to think of it in the same way for both groups.

A tool I’ve discovered is NIACE’s SMOG calculator. The acronym SMOG stands for Simple Measure Of Gobbledegook. It’s online, and easy to use and interpret. Usefully, it interprets the scores in terms of popular newspapers in the UK:

The Sun: under 14
The Daily Express: under 16
The Telegraph and The Guardian: over 17

The Sun is a red top tabloid: very popular, lots of pictures, and simple but very effective headlines.

The Telegraph and The Guardian are broadsheet intellectual papers, broadly representing the right and the left of the political spectrum respectively.

The Daily Express falls somewhere in the middle. I guess one could describe it as a working class version of the Telegraph.

You can find the SMOG tool at the NIACE website.

OK, I knew you’d ask me, so I ran this article through SMOG. It comes out at just over 18, meaning that it will be quite accessible to Guardian and Telegraph readers, but that others may find it hard going. It’s probably because I’ve used several polysyllabic words and complex sentences. If I were writing this for a popular newspaper, I’d rework it by making the sentences shorter and finding simpler words to use.

But as I’m not, I won’t! The key issue is this: there are tools like the readability statistics feature in word processors and the SMOG calculator available to help you hone your text to your exact readership.