CLEVELAND (TDB) -- Newspaper editors are worried about how to grab readers. And a Cleveland Plain Dealer internal memo from last week urges reporters to keep things simple. Plain English and short, uncomplicated sentences are best. It notes that Sen. Sherrod Brown's spouse, columnist Connie Schultz, has written at a level appropriate for fifth graders. Meanwhile, Washington bureau reporter Sabrina Eaton seems to be rebuked. The memo says she wrote about Dennis Kucinich at a level appropriate for high school seniors, or subscribers to The New York Times. Her "reading ease" score was low.
Here's the complete text of the memo:
The Writer's Group has been discussing Jack Hart's book, A Writer's Coach. This week we talked about the chapter on clarity. Hart points out that we can test the readability of our stories with the Fesch-Kincaid test, which is available in all Word programs. To get the Fesch-Kincaid test, click on tools, then spelling and grammar, then click on options and check "show readability scores". The Flesch-Kincaid test expresses scores in grade levels, based on sentence lengths, word lengths and active voice.
"Most writers with Flesch-Kincaid scores of 10 or less can engage a large, diverse audience," Hart writes. He says Pulitzer Prize winner Tom Hallman usually averages about grade 7. "Clear direct writing produces the lowest scorers," Hart writes.
With that in mind, I tested some of our best work and compared it to the New York Times. I picked three New York Times page 1 stories from this week, all 2,000 words or more. They averaged 12th-grade level, from 20-24 words per sentence, more than 5 characters per word, and 18-20 percent passive sentences.
The computer also gives an ease of reading score. Readers Digest averages a 65 score, Time magazine about 52 and the Harvard Law Review low 30s. All of the New York Times stories scored below 45.
John Mangels' Plagued by Fear (Day 1) was an extremely complex story about plague research, science and academics. Yet it came in at a 10th grade level, with 17.8 words per sentence, 4.9 characters per word and only 4 percent passive voice. It's ease of reading score was 53.
Rachel Dissell's Johanna series (Day 1) scored at the 6th grade level. It also had only 6 percent passive sentences, 12.1 words per sentence (wps), 4.6 characters per word (cpw) and a reading ease score of 72.1.
Connie Schultz's Pulitzer finalist, Burden of Innocence, scored at the FIFTH-grade level. Burden had 4 percent passive sentences, 11.8 wps, 4.2 cpw and a reading ease score of 78, the highest of any I tested.
Andy's Last Secret, a national award winner from Joanna Connors, also scored at the 6th-grade level with only 1 percent passive sentences. Karen Long's Penny-Missouri winner, In Balraj's Realm, a complex story than (sic) delved into science, political, gender and ethnic issues, came in at grade level 7.7.
I also checked this year's New York Times' Pulitzer winner for feature writing and it scored much higher on the readability scale than the typical Times story. The first day of the series about an imam scored at the eighth-grade level with 13.7 wps and a 60 reading ease score.
Then I scored the three front-page stories from Monday's Plain
Dealer. The results:
Grade level: 12.0.
Words per sentence: 22.
Characters per word: 4.9.
Passive sentences: 7 percent.
Reading ease: 39.
Grade level: 8.0.
Wps: 14.3 .
Cpw: 4.8 .
Passive: 7 percent.
Reading ease: 62.5.
Grade level: 10.8.
Passive: 4 percent.
Reading ease: 48.
The moral, I suppose, is that you don't have to write long sentences and use difficult words to write complicated stories. In fact, excellent writing is often concise writing. I also think it's worth noting that it's also more difficult to hone writing into that high ease of reading range. But it can be done with a little editing. My first draft of this memo came in at the 10th-grade level. I did a little editing and it is now at grade 7.1.
As a final note, years ago, when John Carroll was editor in Lexington, he refused to publish a series, Cheating Our Children, about the poor education in Kentucky until the writers got it down to grade level THREE. You can't write respectable journalism at the third-grade level, can you? The series was a Pulitzer finalist, won several major awards and, most importantly, led to a revolution in the Kentucky educational system.
I would be glad to show anyone how to use the Flesch test.