The Plain English Writing Formula:
Changing 'Readability' to 'Writeability'
Nobody can learn to write properly by using a mathematical formula. Writing is what is inside you and how it comes out in words. Nevertheless, readability formulas
have helped many writers measure the readability of their writing. We have found them helpful to a degree, but a readability formula cannot do two important things: 1.
measure the contents, the information in a message; or 2.
evaluate the writing style.
A readability formula may rate a sloppy writing style as above average, while, on the other hand, a highly readable style may not do well at all.
Because few readability formulas can measure content or style, they fail to teach writing to any palpable degree. That is why in our readability
formula, called the Plain English Writing Formula
, we shift the emphasis from "readability" to "writeability." Our concern is not so much with the reader as with the writer.
Rather than counting every syllable or words of three syllables or more, we concentrate on words which make up nearly three-fourths of plain English. These are words most natural to our language, especially its native nouns and verbs, its one-syllable words. When the writer deals with the words most natural to English, he learns how to handle the language.
Next to Chinese, English is the most
monosyllabic major language. The formula stresses one-syllable words, not just because of their occurrence in plain English, but because: 1.
many strong verbs are one syllable. Strong verbs are the guts of good writing; and, 2.
writers have a tendency to form strong, active verbs with verb-adverb combinations such as: "put up with," "fall away from," "stand up to," "go for," "hold up," "put a stop to," etc.forms you can use to describe even the most complex or abstract actions.
The Plain English Writing Formula
has a feature that goes a
long way toward protecting the writer from falling into the passive voice, a weakness plagued in Government writing. In counting one-syllable words we do not count these one-syllable verbs: "is," "are," "was," and "were." Since writers use these verbs frequently to form the weak passive voice, our formula "emphasizes them out," and the formula forces the writer to use stronger verbs. Another word we do not count is "the." It simply isn't needed in many cases.
One thing the Plain English Writing Formula
has in common with some others is that it measures sentence length.
Research shows that readers prefer short sentences, on 18- to 20-word average. By giving points for shortness, the writer is encouraged to create a short sentence average.
Here's how to use the Plain English Writing Formula:
1. Count a 100-word sample.
2. Count all one-syllable words except "the", "is", "are", "was", and "were." Count one point for each one-syllable word.
3. Count the number of sentences in the 100-word sample to the nearest period or semicolon and
give three points for each sentence.
4. Add together the one-syllable word count and the three points for each sentence to get your grade.
For example, if you have 55 one-syllable words in your 100-word sample, with each worth 1 point
, and if you have 5 sentences (semicolons count as periods) (5 x 3), your total score will be 70
If your piece has less than 100 words
, multiply your tally to get the equivalent of 100: Multiply a 25-word sample by 4
; a 33-word sample by 3
; a 61-word sample by 1.65
If you tally between 70 and 80 points
, you are in the right bracket for the average adult reader
. A score of 80 is close to ideal, but if you score over 85
you may be getting too simple
; if you drop much below 70
, you're too complicated
unless you are writing as a technician to another technician in the same specialized field.
A score of 75 or 80
means you can get through to an average American reader
. This kind of uncomplicated writing is preferred by most college graduates, but can also reach high school graduates.
Magazines like Harpers and Atlantic come out between 65 and 70. Time and the Wall Street Journal run between 70 and 75. Reader's Digest floats between 75 and 85. Children's Digest ranges upward from 85 to over 100. The formula may seem easy; it's purposely restricted
. It will not let you rest on the one-syllable connectives and prepositions, but will force you to use the strong verbs and colorful nouns. It will force you to write as good writers do: with the strong, clear, active words.
Use the formula until you feel you understand its purpose, then forget it
except for periodic checkups to see if you're still writing within readable limits.