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|Creating the Perfect Level of Writing For The Audience|
Something to help me find the $10 words
| 9:09 pm on Mar 20, 2009 (gmt 0)|
I have a brilliant writer who writes well. The problem is she has a vocabulary that is too high level for the web. I have tried to have her pull back, but no good. It is just part of her style. Problem is your average reader has a vocabulary of like a 4th grader.
I am getting a little tired of editing her docs to find all the $10 words. Is there a software out there that will analyze text and identify words in a doc that are above the average person's reading level?
I suspect not (other than a bonafide editor) but I thought I would ask.
| 9:25 pm on Mar 20, 2009 (gmt 0)|
I would not trust any machine solution; there are nuances among words that thesaurus-based replacements cannot capture without making the language sound stilted.
Are you underestimating your audience? If they're in a demographic that would read The New Yorker or The Economist, perhaps the language is not in fact too highfalutin. If indeed if your "brilliant" writer is not writing well for your audience, however, then she is not doing her job. Hire an editor, or find a different writer.
| 9:35 am on Mar 21, 2009 (gmt 0)|
|The problem is she has a vocabulary that is too high level for the web. ...your average reader has a vocabulary of like a 4th grader. |
Where did that come from? Lol!
I'm guessing what you mean to say is that your average readers have the vocabulary of a 4th grader?
I suppose an old fashioned printed thesaurus is too obvious to suggest? Also, I agree with choster: are you underestimating your audience (it is a valid question), and why can't the writer tailor her work to your reders?
| 3:53 pm on Mar 21, 2009 (gmt 0)|
I am currently using an old fashioned thesaurus. Just looking for a faster way. Time being money and all.
4th grade is what I have always been told to write at for the web. Your average newspaper is written at a 5th grade level and the web is considered to be somewhat less ...mmm... intellectual.
Writing at a 4th grade level makes it easier for a rushed internet user to scan and digest. And, honestly, have you read the average blog. 4th grade vocabulary - tops. I would add a few links on it, but it isn't allowed. But a quick search brings up many articles on the subject.
| 5:36 pm on Mar 21, 2009 (gmt 0)|
What you say is interesting. I suppose it depends on your target audience, though. I appreciate the notion of an 'average' reader, but sometimes feel that this statistical term gets in the way of things. If half of an audience is 'brighter' than the other half, and one provides content that is 'average' in its intellectual tone and vocabulary, isn't it the risk that the smarter ones will feel patronised?
I certainly wouldn't consider the web to be 'less intellectual', but guess it depends on where you hang out and with whom... ;-)
| 5:38 pm on Mar 21, 2009 (gmt 0)|
The thesaurus function in most word processing programs is pretty good. There are on line thesauri as well. For some things a "dumb down" is appropriate, for others the more accurate word is the best approach.
| 7:26 pm on Mar 21, 2009 (gmt 0)|
I've heard this mentioned several times in recent months:
With all the stuff going on around them, their limited attention span, lack of time, and all the other stuff, the average reading age is twelve years.
| 7:45 pm on Mar 21, 2009 (gmt 0)|
Not in the UK: Internet Population's Average Age Increasing in UK [marketingvox.com]
I'm sure someone must have more up-to-date info than this - and for a broader sample?
| 12:44 pm on Mar 22, 2009 (gmt 0)|
Jakob Neilson recommends [useit.com] a 6th grade for nav and main text and says you could go up to an 8th for other content. But, you are still losing about 18% of your low-readers and 7% of your high readers. So, why not aim for a 4th or 5th grade level and make it easier for everone to read. Plus, he was looking at it in a lab setting where people were asked to concentrate on the website in front of them. Not in a real world setting where they may hit 5 different websites in a matter of minutes.
Ok, so maybe your average person can read at a higher level, if they are concentrating... if they were not online... if they did not have 9 other info options avaliable at the click of a back button.
Internet users of today view the web as a sampling menu. The faster they can comprehend your information, the more likely they are to stay.
Plus, writing at a lower level does not harm your site. People with higher reading levels don't mind reading info in a digestable form. And those who genuinely do read at a lower level appreciate they can read what you have.
I tend to think of it like screen resolution or browser compatibility. Sure, 50% may have the better type, but that does not mean you throw out the the other 50%.
| 2:21 pm on Mar 22, 2009 (gmt 0)|
Surely one should target your intended audience? If you're aiming at an audience of professional people (for 'professional' read presumed intelligent) then you adapt your tone and language accordingly - even in non-work environments.
If the audience is comprised of teenagers, then you adapt to that and cater for their needs. Whatever the audience, the rule applies.
This statement of 'average' is far too bland - ultimately meaningless - in my view. Average in what way: intelligence, education, age, aspiration, income, health, region, state, country, planet?
By taking an 'average' approach, surely you risk alienating the 50% who are above the line. Surely, as in any marketing project, one should seek to build up as detailed a demographic picture of the audience as possible and tailor the product or service accordingly.
I despair at the endemic attitude that online is the place for poor or 'dumbed down' information because that's all people want, have time for, or are able to digest. That's not pointing an accusatory finger at you, hannamyluv, it's just jabbing an editorial finger in the ribs of anyone who'll listen! :-)
| 3:19 pm on Mar 22, 2009 (gmt 0)|
|I despair at the endemic attitude that online is the place for poor or 'dumbed down' information because that's all people want |
I am not in this to save the world's IQ. I am in this to make a living. ;) I give the people what they want.
|Surely one should target your intended audience? If you're aiming at an audience of professional people (for 'professional' read presumed intelligent) then you adapt your tone and language accordingly - even in non-work environments. |
Certainly. I would still recommend going 1-2 grade levels below what they could read if they were concentrating.
My site is geared towards your run of the mill, slightly older American. I am going to aim for the bottom rung. :) But if your site is geared towards doctors, then you don't have that restriction.
So, bringing this back to what I asked for originally, I am looking for a software that I could say "point out all the 8th grade + words" or "point out all the 5th grade + words" and then I can go through and make it more readable for my intended audience. It would be nice if I could find that, but I don't think that there is a software out there like that.
Oh well, back to the regular old thesaurus.
| 3:33 pm on Mar 22, 2009 (gmt 0)|
|I despair at the endemic attitude that online is the place for poor or 'dumbed down' information |
That comment reflects a common misconception. Simplifying and streamlining the language used does not ... repeat not ... necessarily mean that the actual information being conveyed is dumbed down.
Ponder the difference between calling something a "manually operated horticultural excavation implement" or "calling a spade a spade".
Ten-dollar words are like adding spices to your cooking. Too much can make the dish indigestible. However, you don't need to be afraid of the occasional big, uncommon word if it truly conveys something essential that a more common word would miss, and the context makes the meaning clear.
The best way to use big words is sparingly. If your overall writing style is clear, simple, and direct, an occasional big word ... exactly the right word ... need not cause indigestion. If it is skilfully presented, it can leave the reader with the pleasure of learning something new.
Like so many things in life, keep a light hand about it and you'll be okay.
| 12:44 am on Mar 23, 2009 (gmt 0)|
|That comment reflects a common misconception. Simplifying and streamlining the language used does not ... repeat not ... necessarily mean that the actual information being conveyed is dumbed down. |
That comment reflects a common misconception in itself! We're not talking about - and I repeat - we're not talking about simplifying complex information - we're talking about at what level of intelligence to pitch content in respect of the vocabulary. An easy mistake to make, as is patronising the reader.
Pitch your content at the uppermost level of the reader and earn their respect. Make yours a lexicon they can learn from, not feel condescended by. Be a leader, not a dumb class mate.
Ah, Hannamyluv, all is clear now - you're aiming at Americans - and older ones at that! Of course, like all elderly peoples, they didn't have 'big words' back in the ol' days... ;-)
As you say, back to the thesaur... er, sorry... the nice book with lots of words in it that have the same meaning, but with no pretty pictures.
Tongue firmly in cheek ;-)
| 12:52 am on Mar 23, 2009 (gmt 0)|
I think the point about "reading age" was also trying to convey that although your reader is 40 years old, has several degrees, and a highly paid job - at the very moment he is reading your page, with the kids screaming in the background, the wife wanting him to get off the damn computer and eat, the phone ringing, the ballgame already started on the TV, and a myriad of other things going on around, that he isn't going to be able to take in, or concentrate on, anything beyond very basic-level stuff, stuff aimed at a twelve year old in terms of vocabulary, word-choice, and sentence structure.
| 4:25 am on Mar 23, 2009 (gmt 0)|
|we're talking about at what level of intelligence to pitch content in respect of the vocabulary. |
Nope, the issue is about the grade level of reading skills to aim for. That is very different from intelligence.
|Pitch your content at the uppermost level of the reader and earn their respect. |
Nope, again. I don't know anyone who respects pointless polysyllabics. Bloated verbiage is like bloated code; it might get the job done after a fashion, but it does not reflect first-rate thinking.
Do not worry about whether readers would "respect" you. The writer's job is to serve readers, not to impress them. Set ego aside and focus on presenting the information and ideas in a manner that will make them as easy as possible for readers (or listeners) to understand accurately. If you do a good job of that, your audience will respect you just fine.
Ironically, the better you are at making information easy to grasp, the less that most readers will even notice your writing style. They'll just absorb what you have to say and feel good about discovering something new. Better yet, they'll come back for more.
Anything by Rudolph Flesch (creator of the Flesch Reading Ease test)
Politics and the English Language by George Orwell
| 5:52 pm on Mar 23, 2009 (gmt 0)|
There's a program you can download that will give you the Flesch grade level of your content. Some of our content was at grade level 17-19! That was mostly when talking about medical termonology which has many syllables per word and our writer likes to craft 40+ word sentences. It was easy enough to "dumb it down" just by breaking up long sentences but personally I think it's still too high at 11-13.
| 6:36 pm on Mar 23, 2009 (gmt 0)|
|Nope, again. I don't know anyone who respects pointless polysyllabics. |
I would agree about pointless vocabulary words... however there are countless instances where 6th grade and above words convey meaning that would otherwise take a dozen little words. In those cases they improve the flow and readability.
It's an interesting debate and I can see both sides. On one hand virtually all forms of media have a tendency to underestimate the general public, which over time presumably becomes a kind of self fulfilling prophecy. On the other hand it's true that people are more likely to be skimming and jumping around while reading online.
The only thing I'd add is that it is perhaps a little silly to assume that you have "lost" a reader just because they've encountered a word they don't know the definition of. If they're interested in the topic they will infer a vague meaning from the context and continue reading. You have to hit someone with quite a lot of words they can't parse before they give up.
It really depends on context... If you're writing catalog descriptions for alarm clocks, keep it simple. If you're writing an article on a topic that requires some level of intellect, don't patronize your audience.
| 6:40 pm on Mar 23, 2009 (gmt 0)|
Can't communicate complex thoughts, even world-calss literature, in simple prose? Sure you can. Read Hemingway or Camus and the other minimalists.
And you young pups shouldn't put the genre down just because these authors' books are "dated." Notwithstanding the fact that with young people, ancient history is anything before their birthdays. LOL.
But to the point of this string, Hannamyluv, you probably need to get somebody else to write your copy. Buckworks nailed it: "Do not worry about whether readers would "respect" you. The writer's job is to serve readers, not to impress them. Set ego aside..."
And to build on Buckworks' official reading list, I have a copy of Flesch's "The Art of Clear Thinking" in my hand as we speak. It's been a friend since I was a college freshman. I was gratified to stroll by the sofa and to see daughter #2 reading it on her own and without any prompting (gasp) as she was about to start her freshman year.
| 6:46 pm on Mar 23, 2009 (gmt 0)|
> It would be nice if I could find that, but I don't think that there is a software out there like that.
There is...sort of.
It's called Stylewriter (google it). I use it and it works wonderfully. It doesn't do exactly what you want (put things in a "x" level). Instead, it locates complex/confusing words that can be simplified...among many other things (such as passive/active voice problems, wordiness, hidden verbs).
This program is a gem...I use it everyday (I'm almost done with my first novel, so I do use this program extensively) and have started using it now for articles on my web site now as well.
This program makes MS Word's grammar stuff seem very, very lame by comparison.
Is it perfect? Of course not. But even your high-powered writer might feel embarrassed when you show her the results of a solid re-writing of her work and how the program has a unique ability to make what you write easier to read and far more understandable.
Only problem is that the program only works with MS Word. If you use another word processor, you're out of luck.
PS...I think you're correct about the reading level. The average person does indeed have a 4th grade reading level, from what I've read a few times somewhere. But, you know what, that lower level is usually far easier and clearer to read than material written at a graduate level (and often far more enjoyable to read, too). Just because something is "more advanced" does not make it better!
Get the program...you won't be disappointed (and no, I don't have a financial bone in the program in any way. Just a big convert who uses it everyday).
Also, one more note. It uses an ancient crypkey protection system to prevent unauthorized copies. It's annoying, but there's a way to get rid of it if you yell at the people who created Stylewriter enough (the program was locking down my external hard drive, and thus prevented my laptop dock from working properly). If you don't' have a laptop dock, this probably isn't an issue.
| 7:01 pm on Mar 23, 2009 (gmt 0)|
If you're targeting an older audience, vocabulary is likely to be less important than layout and font choices are. I'd focus my energies on making sure that paragraphs aren't too long and that typefaces are readable. Long blocks of text in tiny sans-serif type will deter more readers than the use of "automobile" for "car," "motion picture" for "movie," or "vomit" for "hurl" will.
| 7:04 pm on Mar 23, 2009 (gmt 0)|
i used to get these remarks when i started college. i found that you @ times use $50 words when your thoughts are generalized. you may want her to write exactly what she wants to communicate. you may want to have another writer, maybe a professor, proofread it for you and show her the remarks. i read some of the my early college papers and see how my writing would have been so much clearer if i used words with less syllables.
if you read how mainstream reporters write, they are both simple yet professional. her writing should be just as simple unless she is writing jargon for a profession-specific crowd, like a doctor releasing the exact findings of a study to a board of doctors. i kind of face the same obstacle when writing presentations for web-neophytes. i think that i am writing as simply as i can, but i find that even adjectives such as 'meta' need to be removed, and i should simply state that 'there are descriptions in your html code that need to be individualized.'
| 7:09 pm on Mar 23, 2009 (gmt 0)|
You can get a grade-level estimate out of Word. It's in older versions too, but in Word 2007, you select
- Review -> Spelling and Grammar
- From the dialog box, click "Options". Select "Show readability statistics".
- Check spelling and grammar. When completed, it will show you
+ % of passive sentences.
+ Flesch reading ease index
+ Flesch-Kinkaid grade level estimate.
I just ran jimh009's post above this through word and it said
Passive sentences: 4%
Flesch reading ease index: 76
Flesch-Kinkaid grade level estimate: 7.6
You could tell your writer to write and rewrite until the FK index is grade 5, otherwise you won't accept the piece and you won't pay for it.
>>4th grade is what I have always been told to write at for the web
First off, the median is irrelevant. If you have a website devoted to keeping researchers abreast of the latest research in human nutrition, you can't say anything worth saying at the fourth grade level or even the college graduate level.
The fifth grade thing is coming from ad copywriters. It's not that that is the reading level of people on the web, it's that when writing an ad even addressed at an audience with MDs and PhDs, they respond best to writing at a fifth-grade level.
| 7:13 pm on Mar 23, 2009 (gmt 0)|
>>i used to get these remarks when i started college.
I'm sure Buckworks can relate to this too. If you've ever corrected college writing, you'll see that the issue is that students try to through in impressive-sounding "formal" language which is at best boring to read. More often, however, they don't actually have good control of that language and it just makes them look foolish, rather than the intelligent people they appear to be when they come to your office and explain orally what they were trying to express in writing.
| 7:19 pm on Mar 23, 2009 (gmt 0)|
|the intelligent people they appear to be when they come to your office and explain orally what they were trying to express in writing. |
u hit the nail on the thumb! when a client asks 'what does this mean?' i say it as simply as possible and wonder 'why didn't i just write it that way?'
you may want to point out a sentence to the writer and tell her you don't understand this. when she explains what she means, then tell her, "well write it that way!"
| 7:29 pm on Mar 23, 2009 (gmt 0)|
I agree whole-heartedly with signor_john: it's not a matter of dumbing down or addressing a lower grade level. It's a matter of politeness toward the reader's stamina and time.
Use small words; let large words earn their keep. I recall with horror many bureaucratic memos with "utilization" in place of "usage" and the like.
I would point you to a website with Ernest Hemingway's 5 Top Tips for Writing Well, if URL citations were allowed here. Instead allow me to cite Steven Krug. Look at the composed text and "Eliminate half of what you’ve written, then eliminate half of what’s left." Make a point.
| 7:48 pm on Mar 23, 2009 (gmt 0)|
The writer must not be that brilliant if they can't write on a 4th grade level. Brilliant writers are not that useful since very few people are brilliant readers.
| 8:59 pm on Mar 23, 2009 (gmt 0)|
|Do not worry about whether readers would "respect" you. The writer's job is to serve readers, not to impress them. Set ego aside and focus on presenting the information and ideas in a manner that will make them as easy as possible for readers (or listeners) to understand accurately. If you do a good job of that, your audience will respect you just fine. |
This isn't about respect for the individual, it's much bigger than that. It's about gaining respect for the product - your site / blog / column / magazine / TV slot. The ego has nothing to do with it.
If your product can command respect, it's one step away from being in a position of authority. Talk at the same level - use the same tone and vocabulary - and what makes you different from your drunken mate down the pub?
I've just spent the last 45 minutes reading online part of a chapter of a book about military strategy and history (specifically the Battle of Waterloo). The book is available via Project Gutenberg. I reckon the page scrolls somewhere in the length of 3 metres, maybe more. And the language is almost arcane by today's simplified neo-media speak. Hey, but you know what - it's online and I don't want the language changed to suit my supposedly short attention span.
Too busy to read it; life too hectic? Isn't that what bookmarks, etc, are for?
Whilst - and here I'll happily concede the point - many times we seek a banquet or feast of facts and figures, at other times a mere morsel will do.
If you're catering for a proverbial fast food generation, make it snappy. Make 'em hungry again in half an hour. If it's informational satiation you desire, make it slow, rich and sumptuous. Make sure they go away enriched and full of whatever delights you have to offer. They will be back.
Now in need of an indigestion tablet as I've eaten far too quickly :-)
Ps: Ogletree - I like it! May I quote you?
[edited by: Syzygy at 9:00 pm (utc) on Mar. 23, 2009]
| 9:13 pm on Mar 23, 2009 (gmt 0)|
>>Ernest Hemingway's 5 Top Tips for Writing Well
Sure, but I find him unreadable! Give me Faulkner, Shakespeare or Steven King.
The rules on writing "from Hemingway" that get mentioned come from the Kansas City Star style guide, from when Hemingway was a reporter there, fresh out of high school. Later in life he said they were as good as any. The document is actually quite long and has hundreds of rules, some as useful as
|Don't say "He had his leg cut off in an accident." He wouldn't have had it done for anything.... |
Indorsement of a candidate, not endorsement.
But when people talk about "Hemingway's" rules, they usually mean the first four from the Star stylesheet of the era:
|Use short sentences. Use Short first paragraphs. Use vigorous English. Be positive, not negative. |
Link to the full stylesheet at: [kansascity.com...]
Remember: ad fontes - too nice short words that everyone understands, right ;-)
| 1:44 am on Mar 24, 2009 (gmt 0)|
I once read advice to effect that: "Never write anything you wouldn't say."
- believe this to be sound. And indeed find people who write amazingly dense prose that's hard to make sense of: sometimes, it's because their thoughts aren't clear beforehand; sometimes as trying to impress.
Stepping back a little, seeing if you would actually say what you're writing, is a great help here.
Simple prose won't work for some things: try quantum mechanics without any jargon.
But surely, key is to write as simply as possible, and with as few words as possible, whilst achieving objectives. More easily said - or written - than done!
Haven't noticed Strunk and White's Elements of Style mentioned here. Top advice includes the memorable "Omit needless words."
How to Write Like a Pro, by Barry Tarshis, also excellent; tho maybe no longer available.
| 2:38 am on Mar 24, 2009 (gmt 0)|
The Flesch Readability Score was devised by Rudolph Flesch.
I used to have softcover editions of a couple of his books. They did a good job of explaining how to keep writing simple.
Quite readable - he practiced what he preached.
Offhand, I don't know of a copy-editing software that will hunt down and highlight the big words and long sentences. But it sounds like something that should already exist.
Keep searching, bet there's something out there, somewhere.
[edited by: poppyrich at 2:44 am (utc) on Mar. 24, 2009]
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