Writing Talk

Writing is an art – I think we’d all agree on that. But the wonders of mathematics and computers can help. Mostly they help in an indirect way; by pointing out where you’ve made a bit of a bludner. I’m not talking about the funny little thing in Microsoft Wrod that puts a little wiggly line under some words – it’s usually wrong. Though I wish it had been around when Star Trek was being written; ‘To boldly go’ indeed! More usefully, Word has a thing called the Flesch-Kinkaid Reading Ease. Each version of Word has its own way of enabling it, so I won’t give instructions here. Basically, it scores your work for ease of understanding. Aim for eighty, and you should be okay. Seventy is scraping by. Another Word complication is that some versions give you a score based on the Flesch-Kincaid Grade Level. Aim for about four here.

The Foggy Foggy Dew

If you compose with pencil and paper, or a different word processor – maybe Apple’s Pages, you can do the same thing without inflicting the spelling Nazis on yourself. Take a paragraph or two in the middle of your work – about a hundred words. Count: The number of words. Let the number be W. The number of sentences. Call it S. The number of long words (more than two syllables). Call this L. Now calculate the average length of sentence. W divided by S. Call the answer A. Calculate the percentage of long words. L times 100 divided by W. The result is P. Add A and P together and multiply by 0.4. The result is the Fog Factor. For listening, rather than reading, the Fog Factor is quite a bit more accurate than the Flesch thing.

An example

Grit your teeth and read this:
This policy addresses access to, and data residing in, computerised administrative systems (hereinafter referred to as The Systems and The Data) supported by Administrative Information Services (AIS). This includes, but is not limited to, Financial and Student systems, and it does not include institutional reporting databases, departmental systems, hard copy files or systems or databases maintained by any unit other than AIS. It does not supersede applicable statutes that guarantee either the protection or accessibility of data. The intent of this policy is to maximise the strategic value of the systems and the data by promoting its effective use in management decisions, daily operations and analyses being conducted by faculty, staff or students; protection against unauthorised use, and promote security measures for the purpose of maintaining the integrity of the systems and the data.
How far did you get? About a sentence and a half? I’m not surprised. I did a foggy sum for it and it scored 23. Anything above six is a bit difficult for a listener, and 23 is… well, not good. Even for a specialised news sheet. Try another paragraph:
The Fog Factor is well known. Some people call it the Fog Index. It’s a way of telling how easy your work is to read. It’s only a guide, of course, but it’s a good guide. Take a paragraph from the middle of your work – about a hundred words is best. Do the maths using the steps I just gave you and see what fog factor you get. About seven or eight is fine for a newspaper. If your work is for broadcast you need to make it a bit simpler. Try to score less than seven.
That scored 4.8.Quite okay for broadcast.

A sort-of example

I spent some hours copying down every bit of dialogue from a film – Monty Python’s Life of Brian. It scored 3.6.

Another way to do it

I don’t know anybody who’s done this after a talk by me – but it works. No fogs, no Flesch, no complications. But it does need two people. One reads through all the research material. Three or four times, if you can stomach it. The other fetches tea and coffee. Eventually, the first person has had enough coffee and is ready for the next stage. He or she closes the reference books and speaks the subject aloud. The coffee bringer writes it down verbatim. When I’ve preached this as a way to go, people have asked how I expect them to remember details without copious notes. Well, if you can’t remember it after three or four readings, how do you expect the listener to remember it after hearing it just once? It works. I know – I used to do it. Sometimes a sentence gets written down wrongly. But you can do it again, or tidy the original. But working with a second person ensures that what gets onto the paper is ‘talk’.