How To Know If Readers Can Read What You’ve Written

Most blogs are written with a focus. Not this one, but that’s another story. Writers tend to focus on topics that are of interest to their target reader. The successful topics can be dieting, investing, travel, dating, fashion, politics, personal productivity or any of a zillion other ideas. The most important thing might be finding a topic that will appeal to a wide enough audience to build a collection of readers who will return on a regular basis. In this column, I’m going to suggest a secondary reason blogs (and books) may or may not appeal to the desired audience.

The grade level of your writing.

See Dick read. See Jane read faster and comprehend better. See Spot casually chomping down on the interior of the book because he isn’t capable of reading anything at all and the book had an olfactory residue implying a tasty repast.

If you write text that is too easy or too difficult for your target audience to read, you probably won’t have many readers at all. While we can easily see the difference in the three readers in the prior paragraph, what we really need is a simple way to quantify the difficulty of various passages of text.

Back when I was creating policy forms for insurance companies, one of the goals was to pass a readability test. The various state insurance departments required us to calculate a Flesch score for each policy we submitted to prove that the policy could possibly be read and understood. The formula we had to use was created back in the forties and required us to count the number of words, the number of syllables, and the number of sentences in the policy. Scores were like grades in school, ranging between 0 and 100. The higher your score, the better. The standards usually required policy forms to score 40 or higher. Something with this score usually challenges a college graduate due to the complexity of the material, and yet it was a very difficult score to reach when writing an insurance policy. I quickly learned a few tricks to help reach higher scores:

  • Lists.  Each list item counts as a sentence.  List items can be short sentence fragments.
  • Use semi-colons instead of commas where possible.  A semi-colon counts as starting a new sentence; I figured out how to insert semi-colons where a comma might work.
  • Two or three short sentences instead of one.  The word count will be longer than one long sentence.  The sentence count will be higher.  Those features help your score.
  • No words with three syllables.  If only I could find another word for “syllable.”

Back in the dark ages of the early seventies, I had to count syllables and words and sentences manually, and it was easy to mess up.  I frequently counted the numbers multiple times, marking up a form to help keep the counts straight.  By the mid-seventies software had started to show up that did a fairly good job even though it was written in FORTRAN.  Now, of course, there is much better software.

A really great site is at  Readability Formulas .  This site allows you to copy up to 2000 words into a box, press a button, and see seven different readability scores.  To give you an idea of how different works score, here are the scores for the first few pages of a handful of very different books:

  • Ray Brehm, The Author Start-Up, an Amazon best-seller about writing books.  89.5 (4th-5th grade level).
  • J. K. Rowling, Harry Potter and the Sorceror’s Stone.  76.5 (5th-6th grade level)
  • Chandler Bolt, Published, another Amazon best-seller about writing books.  75.4 (6th-7th grade level).
  • Steven King, The Stand.  73.1 (7th-8th grade level).
  • Dr. Seuss, Green Eggs and Ham.  73.1 (7th-8th grade level for the entire book).
  • Jim Molinelli, Remodel, an Amazon best-seller about remodeling your home.  55.9 (9th-11th grade level).
  • F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Great Gatsby.  46.5 (college students).
  • Every policy form I ever did, about 40.0 (advanced college degree).

My typical blog entry seems to center around scores near 60, which aims at 11th-12th grade, and the first few chapters of the book I’m working only hits 63, so perhaps I need to get to work making my writing easier to read.  Perhaps because of today’s topic, this column scored over 71, a definite improvement.  I’m not the only one worrying about words; here are the Monkees:

How the Laws of Robotics Can Help With the Separation of Church and State

A discussion with John W. Campbell (editor of Analog Magazine) led Isaac Asimov to delineate the three laws of robotics:

  1. A robot may not injure a human being or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm.
  2. A robot must obey the orders given it by human beings except where such orders would conflict with the First Law.
  3. A robot must protect its own existence as long as such protection does not conflict with the First or Second Laws.

The basic idea of the laws was that it made little sense to build robots that could go berserk and hurt humans (or evolve into Skynet and eliminate humans).  A zeroeth law eventually was established independently by the robots, and one short story suggested that a robot could ignore those laws to protect another robot that it considered its child.  Numerous short stories and novels followed that relied on these laws or examined how they would function in practice.  One, in particular, remains fresh in my memory nearly sixty years after I first read it, Runaround.  A robot on Mercury is ordered to enter the sun-side of Mercury to get some selenium that is needed by the colonists (this was back when our understanding of Mercury’s rotation was inexact and the human race still had intentions of colonizing space).  Following the orders that were given by a human (Second Law), the robot tries to get the ore, but when it (he?) gets in the extremely hot area of the planet it becomes clear that continuing on that path will result in possible destruction so the robot returns to the cooler part of the planet (Third Law).  The decision the robot’s positronic brain makes is that the robot will be destroyed and possibly be unable to complete its mission.  Once the robot is safely outside of the heat the sequence repeats itself since the robot is no longer threatened by the heat, and the robot ends up running back and forth, unable to decide what to do.  Any robot that I built would have a positronic brain smart enough to go back to the humans for help, but this was clearly an early robot (look up R. Daneel Olivaw for an example of a more advanced robot).  The robot’s problem arises because the Second Law and Third Law are so close in importance; if a human had been trapped in the sunny sunshine and about to die, the robot would have gone and rescued the human even if it meant certain destruction since the First Law is so important compared to the other two laws.

It might be nice if our Constitution had been drafted with an eye towards the three laws. The constitution seems to be the First Law, with the Bill of Rights trying to spell out some of the protections of citizens that were not spelled out in the original document.  In place of a positronic brain, we have the Supreme Court deciding the relative weights of the various pieces and parts that make up our laws.  Since the tenth amendment has been beaten down almost into non-existence, Federal Laws appear to always trump State Laws, but in any case, the Constitution and its protections are the ironclad first laws we live by.

Flashback to the present, when a law passed in 2012 in Missouri allowed non-profit organizations that had playgrounds to apply for the installation of recycled rubber tires to replace the pebble-infested grounds that often lead to injuries.  We can only hope that Missouri had enough sense to upgrade all the public school playgrounds already and that possibly the law was passed to do something with left-over rubber tires.   Only 44 non-profit groups applied for the help, but only 14 of them were awarded improved playgrounds.   I’m not sure why the state did not believe that protecting all of its playgrounds was a correct use of taxpayer money, but at least they allowed non-profits to apply for help.  Some sort of ranking system was put in place, and a church that had a school playground came in fifth.  The church’s playground was skipped over as a result of a state law that prevents the state from spending money to support any church.  Apparently giving churches exemptions from property taxes isn’t considered spending money, perhaps because the state feels that sort of support to all non-profit organizations is acceptable.

The conflict is similar to the one our poor little robot faced: is it more important to protect the children of the great state of Missouri or more important to avoid possibly being construed as supporting a religion.  I’m pretty sure that protecting the kids wins out in this case, and in many respects, the point is already moot – money was raised and the church’s school playground now has its own rubber linings.  The case is now in front of the Supreme Court, and the implications of a ruling can be important to our futures.  A narrow ruling would allow this particular case and no other to be affected; a wider ruling would open the door to paying for school books and lunches and oh!  The whole question of vouchers supporting religious schools could be settled now instead of five to ten years from now.

Meanwhile, Missouri, please go take care of the other playgrounds that weren’t in your top 15.

Here to help is Glen Campbell singing one of Jimmy Webb’s compositions, Where’s the Playground Susie.