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Get me rewrite

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
found.

  • A Dick and Jane reader scored 100, the highest FRE score.
  • Mr Coyote Meets Mr Snail also scored high–an 88.
  • The Gettysburg Address scored 62, John Kennedy’s Ich bin ein Berliner
    speech also scored 62 and Martin Luther King Jr.’s I’ve Got A Dream speech
    scored 65.
  • The Sacramento Bee scored an average of 39. There are 58 Bee writing
    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.
  • Four Capitol Weekly samples scored an average 43.
  • A Department of Water Resources press release scored a 0 along with
    many state government “mission statements.”
  • Albert Einstein’s Relativity: The Special and General Theory (Chapter
    1) scored 39.
  • California government writing samples scored an average of 17.
    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
    sentences.

    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
    than mine.

    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.


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