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 semicolons 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 How Much Extra Does No Cheese Cost only hit 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.

Planning My Future — Back In 1962

This blog entry is now included as a part of Resisting the Challenges of the 21st Century

I was attending sixth grade at West Side Elementary School in June of 1962.  Our teacher was Mr. Dunham, and for the most part, I thought he was a great teacher.  About a week before classes ended and we graduated to classes at Cold Spring Harbor High School he sat on his desk, looked around at the class, and gave us one final assignment to complete.

“I want you to take out a piece of paper and write down what you expect to do for a living when you finish school,” was all the direction we got from him.   He then started stalking up and down the aisles in the classroom, peeking at our progress.

I sat there and gave it as much thought as I could since it was a topic I hadn’t really spent any time on at all.  The library was one of my favorite places at the school, and I had torn through all the Chip Hilton sports books and Duane Decker’s stories about the Blue Sox, and those were exciting to me.  Sadly, given that I had not yet had a growth spurt and was not particularly strong or fast, it was unlikely I had a future in professional sports.

Once I ran out of sports books, I had also discovered a few books by Arthur C. Clarke and Isaac Asimov (aka Paul French) and Robert Heinlein and continued from there to devour all the science fiction I could get my hands on.  Space exploration was even more exciting than sports, but since I nearly threw up on the Teacup ride at Disneyland I was pretty sure physically going into space was not in my future.  While fighting my way through the non-fiction stacks in the library, I had also discovered that I had an affinity for math, so working on the Space Program seemed like a reasonable future pastime.  The only remaining concern was figuring out the destinations of the rockets I’d be working on.

A year earlier the United States had put its first astronaut in space when Alan Shepard, Jr. spent a little more than 15 minutes in a suborbital flight.  Almost immediately after that accomplishment, President Kennedy had declared the start of a program to put a man on the Moon, something that almost surely would happen by the end of the decade.  The country had managed to put John Glenn into orbit earlier in 1962, so we were obviously on track.  A little more thought and I had my future mapped out:

In the future, I will help with the math that puts our spaceships into space. I should be deeply involved in designing the ships that can reach Mars by the end of the century and then start exploring the asteroid belt.  With any luck, I’ll still be involved in the space program when we finally reach the moons of Jupiter.

I put my name on the page and handed it in when Mr. Dunham came around and collected the sheets.

I had no way of knowing the mistake I had made.

Mr. Dunham sat down at his desk and quickly glanced at the pages we had all written, sometimes nodding and sometimes shaking his head.  And then he got to mine.

“Rembert, please bring another piece of paper and your pen and come out into the hall with me.”  He got up and moved to the door, carrying just my sheet of paper with him.

What could I possibly have done to deserve being singled out over my carefully planned future?  Once we got outside of the classroom, he carefully closed the door, and turned to me with a very disappointed look on his face.  “I wanted you to take this assignment seriously.  Please go down the hall and sit at one of the tables and try again.  I expect better from you this time.”  He almost looked angry, so I quickly slinked down the hall and repositioned myself in one of the desks that lined the walls.

I don’t know how long I sat there, grasping in vain for inspiration.  No jobs came to mind that I didn’t reject immediately.  I thought about falling back on professional sports, but I was pretty sure that would land me back at a desk in the hall again.  I pondered several other careers, but none of them made any sense after soundly convincing myself that I needed to be working in the Space Program.

Finally, I stopped taking the assignment seriously, and then inspiration hit and I scribbled my alternate future.  It did seem somewhat familiar…

In the future, I will write stories about the struggles of a man who helps create the math that puts our spaceships into space.  He will be deeply involved in designing the ships that can reach Mars by the end of the century and then start exploring the asteroid belt.  He will struggle to live long enough and stay involved in the space program until we finally reach the moons of Jupiter.

With a definite feeling of triumph, I returned to the classroom and handed in my earliest successful writing.  This time Mr. Dunham smiled and nodded and let me take my seat again.

Three takeaways from my encounter with inspiration:

  1. It’s easier to sell yourself as a writer than as a rocket scientist.
  2. If you’re stuck for something to write about, simply sit in a quiet place all by yourself with nothing but a pen and a piece of paper and just start writing about the first thing that comes to mind.  Don’t worry about the results. Don’t worry about selling what you’ve written until after you finish writing, and if you can’t sell what you’ve written simply write something else.
  3. In 1969 we landed on the Moon; now we probably can’t even circle the Moon, let alone visit Mars. When reality lets us down, we can always write about what should have been, be it science fiction, history, or even romance.

I’m not the only one who ever struggled with the future:  Back in Time by Huey Lewis and the News