What if there was software to measure writing? There is. It’s called the
Flesch Readability Ease (FRE) test. Both MS Word and Corel’s Wordperfect
include the FRE test.
FRE counts syllables and sentence length. Simply, using words with fewer
syllables and shorter sentences score better than long words and long
sentences. It scores writing from 0 to 100.
Uh-oh, I can hear it now: “You’re out to dumb-down our writing” or “You want
us to use baby talk.”
No, I’m just saying that you can compare what you write with writing I’ve
tested with the FRE test.
Over the past several months I’ve tested 200 writing samples, everything
from grade-school reading primers, to newspaper editorials, to California
government documents, to Einstein’s writings about relativity. Here’s what I
speech also scored 62 and Martin Luther King Jr.’s I’ve Got A Dream speech
samples. But if you take Dan Walters’ 13 columns out of the sample, the Bee
average goes up to 44. Walters’ columns scored an average 25.
many state government “mission statements.”
1) scored 39.
Does the FRE test measure clarity? No. It measures the number of syllables
and the length of sentences. But writers who use shorter words and shorter
sentences are usually more clear than those who use long words and
I’ve posted my list of writing samples and FRE scores on the CalClarity Web
site (CalClarity.com). Next time you write in MS Word or WordPerfect, see
how your writing’s FRE score compares to those on my list. Also on the Web
site, you can find how to get a FRE score in MS Word. Sorry, but I don’t
know how to get the FRE score in WordPerfect, but I’m sure it can’t be hard.
There are three cautions:
First, you must have at least 100 words to get an accurate FRE score.
Don’t use it on a 20-word sentence, for example.
Second, do not pay attention to “Flesch-Kincaid Grade Level” score. It’s
useless. I don’t know, for example, the difference between first- and
fourth-grade reading levels, or the difference between the fifth-grade in
Granite Bay and the fifth-grade in the inner city of Detroit. Pay no
attention to grade level.
Third, be aware that you can create a 100-word document of complete
gibberish and have it return a respectable FRE score. All it counts are the
number of syllables and the length of sentences. It can’t read.
I urge all government offices, branches, sections, departments or agencies
to set their own FRE-score minimums. I’d recommend a minimum score of 40.
That’s a very difficult score. Try it on your next writing project.
Although state law requires “plain, straightforward” writing from all state
government offices, the law is regularly ignored. That’s because there’s no
objective standard of clarity. My boss has a very different idea of clarity
FRE scores allow both of us a standard. What about audience? According to
the plain language of the law, ALL state government writing must be plain
and straightforward. I aim my editing at someone who can read and understand
an editorial in a general circulation newspaper.
General circulation newspapers score an average of 41 on my list of samples.
Their bottom line depends on the ability of people to understand what they
print or they’ll quickly go out of business. Let’s do what they do. Let’s
shoot for 41 FRE score.
This column scored 60 on the FRE scale.