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Monday, October 01, 2007

Cleveland Plain Dealer Internal Memo: Connie Schultz Writes At 5th Grade Level

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:

Dennis Kucinich:
Grade level: 12.0.
Words per sentence: 22.
Characters per word: 4.9.
Passive sentences: 7 percent.
Reading ease: 39.

Tribe Time:
Grade level: 8.0.
Wps: 14.3 .
Cpw: 4.8 .
Passive: 7 percent.
Reading ease: 62.5.

Burke airport:
Grade level: 10.8.
Wps: 17.8.
Cpw: 5.1.
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.


  1. Did the mention Mr. Hallman's ethics issue from last year that got him grounded for a short time?

    I actually got personal kudos from Mr. Hallman after meeting him a couple of years ago and admire his writing. The ethics issue was a very, very unfortunate blip for him. Nevertheless, you know - TESTS. What a waste.

  2. Hi Jill --

    No, I don't know about the ethics issue. Ooops, was that the story where there were some fantasized or made up or questioned sections. Something along those lines? I seem to vaguely recall something . . . but no details.

    As for Sabrina's and other stories that had so called "low" readership scores. They were pretty much written on deadline, or quick turnaround. Others described favorably were worked on for months, edited for long periods of time, written and rewritten. There were a lot of noses out of joint about that memo. I don't think it represents PD policy. The people who work there and run it are decent, sharp, fair and respect each other a lot. Connie's story was was at the FIFTH grade comprehension level? I think the test, and perhaps the tester, did her a disservice.

  3. Bill:

    To set the record straight, Tom Hallman was never accused of making up anything for a story or using quotes from someone else's story. Can you imagine a good reporter doing someting like that? Tom parked for free in a lot owned by someone he wrote about. The lot was 7 blocks from the newspaper. It was recently reported that an Oregonian sports columnist received $80,000 a year to host a talk show on a station owned by one of the owners of a sports team he covers. Hallman was disciplined. the columnist was praised.

    your buddy, stu.

  4. I guess what I find disturbing is - why now? Are readers dumber? Less educated? Why? Are they complaining that they cannot understand?

    What is driving the need to test and decide that the numbers should direct the writing?

    I suppose I'm just too unfamiliar with the formal industry and don't really know what I'm talking about - it wouldn't be the first time or the last.

    But there's just something antithetical about it to me. And when I think about how many questions I feel I'm left with after I read some articles, I want more language, not less.

    Must just be me.

  5. Hi Anon --

    I have to say I have not followed the Oregonian and its ins and outs and ups and downs and etcs and etcs. So I know nothing about Mr. H. I do have a recollection about somebody and a flap about a motel or a story about a motel, but I haven't looked it up and have no plans to do so.

    I think the issue raised in the memo is clarity. Or do the people who might want to read this get what it is about. No answers. I suspect, however, that the Bible would come out at zero in the Flesch test. And the Bible has changed the world -- for better or worse depending on how one views religion. Not much in newspapers has changed the world. Used to be able to change the world. Not today. Could the Flesch be cutting to the bone?

  6. Jill --

    I think you got to the heart of the matter with your wondering about things being dumbed down.

    Who reads a general interest, mass circulation newspaper these days? Not people who do not, or cannot, read. I think the blogs, which are all over the place, are eating the newspaper's lunches. It is interesting, unpredictable, off-the-wall, independent, divergent voices that are triumphing. The Times, for all its problems and faults, has identified an upscale intelligent audience. It will prosper offline or online. Other big city dailies don't know who their customers are, or more accurately, what they want. Mostly, I suspect, they want sports and scandal. At least, that's what the Internet hits show.

  7. Sixteen years ago, when I took my first journalism course, the class was told writing at a 6th grade level was optimal. Dad's professors, whom he first encounters 36 years ago, gave him the same goal.

    Funny how little that target changed and makes one wonder: have the educators become lazy or was that goal the proper one all along?

    Lastly, is the test called Fesch or Flesch?


  8. Hi Redhorse --

    It is called Fesch-Kincaid I believe.

    For some reason, I call it Flesch. Goes back to something somebody once said a few years back.

    As for the 6th grade level, my wife says she was taught to strive for an 8th grade level. She went to the University of Colorado. I remember hearing 8th and 9th at the various schools I went through.

  9. Redhorse --

    Flesch-Kincaid, not Fesch Kincaid. I'm watching football and miswrote. Sorry.

  10. I hate to be niggling, but in that memo there's one misuse of "it's" for "its" and the solecism "most importantly." That knocks it down a couple of grade levels for me, and not in a favorable way.

  11. The Tom Hallman Jr. problem is more than just the one free parking flap that got him suspended and demoted.

    See these links:

    To people in Portland, these events are symptoms of a much larger problem with him.

  12. Flesch scores can easily be manipulated and be misrepresented. If a story protagonist's name is "Smith" and repeated throughout the story, the Flesch score will be at least two grades lower than if the protagonist's name was Kashiwahara or Masiulewicz.

    Length of sentence is a more important index of readability than length of word. Sometimes it takes a long, elegant word to give the proper emotion to the story. For instance:

    "John was mad that his puppy died." reads at a 1.6 Flesch, whereas

    "John was anguished when he saw his year-old collie flattened by a drunk driving a speeding, decrepit Chevrolet pickup." reads at a 10.6

    Now, tell me, which one imparts more valuable information?

    I suppose you can chop it into Flesch-ready, Hemingway-eque sentences like:

    "John was anguished. His year-old collie was dead. The dog was flattened by a drunk driver. The drunk had been driving a Chevrolet pickup. The truck was going fast. It was rusted and decrepit." which is a 5.2

    But jeez, how much longer until newspapers are "See Spot Run...for President"...?

  13. The comments here show the problem.
    Demographics should tell us enough: Three-quarters of Americans lack college degrees. How many high school graduates barely made it through school?
    They, my friends, are our customers, our readers, our bread-and-butter. We must serve them. We also must serve people as well-educated as we are.
    Writers must have a full understanding of their subject matter to make it simple. That's how it's done. (This checks out at a 5.2)

  14. Hi Mark --

    A well-written and well-crafted comment. But writers cannot always have a great or thorough understanding of their topic, at least journalists cannot. Reporters must bounce from story to story, assignment to assignment, topic to topic.

    Also, I would contend that people who don't read, who cannot read, are not likely to be customers of print publications.

    It would be futile, in my view, to write books for people who cannot read. It is probably equally futile to print newspapers for people who cannot read, or comprehend what they are reading.

    Another way of saying that: Can you build and sell cars for people who do not drive? Can you sell meat to a nation of vegans? Can you interest people who do not watch television in TV shows? Etc. All seem to be hopeless endeavors because the intended customer base for a product or service is not interested in the product or service.

  15. So maybe if we are very paternal, write to our audience like they are little children, and baby them along with a third grade reading level they will read about politics and culture instead of celebrity blogs and nonsense. Even when I went to, he rated a 6th grade reading level. Heaven forbid our audience might have to crack open a dictionary or actually force themselves to think for once.

  16. I likes the paper and can understand it fine most of the time. I really like the crime stuff.

  17. One wonders if this dumbing down of news is a contributing factor to why readership is down so much. Sure, the internet is the culprit that is blamed first and foremost but the internet, for all its flaws, has some extremely intelligent news outlets. Even websites that are slanted fairly heavily to the right or left are often on a much higher level than print media. or actually have meaningful debate and intellectual articles.

    I guess what I am saying is this: People will generally live up to their labels. That is to say, call your readership smart and treat them as such. If this is done you may see positive results. Label them as nitwits and that is exactly what you will get.

    People increase reading comprehension by reading challenging material... not by being coddled. Also, language is so very imprecise already. Can anything good can come from limiting it even further by not using every tool that language has at its disposal?

  18. What does coddled mean?

  19. Just curious how The New Yorker scored.

  20. Not surprising ... it's basic knowledge in journalism 101

  21. Is talking down to people somehow considered desirable, then? This whole article is a very sad commentary on modern education and enabling.

    My father faced this 30 years ago when he went back into teaching after retiring as a school administrator; children in his 6th grade math class couldn't do word problems. He asked previous teachers about it, and they said they never taught word problems because the kids couldn't do them. Duh! What do you expect? People will lower themselves to the level you require of them. That doesn't mean you should help them be stupid.

  22. Incidentally and additionally: I worked for a newspaper for a while. My editor did not insist we write for children, and he won lots of awards, too. That one single paper writes for third graders and wins a prize does not indicate that this is a desirable in all cases or even that it was desirable in this one case; it indicates that the story was strong enough to get attention. It's not the third-grade level writing that won the Pulitzer.

  23. >>John was mad that his puppy died." reads at a 1.6 Flesch, whereas

    "John was anguished when he saw his year-old collie flattened by a drunk driving a speeding, decrepit Chevrolet pickup." reads at a 10.6

    Now, tell me, which one imparts more valuable information?<<

    In reference to the above, very little of the second sentence is important information. Perhaps the point of the internal memo is to encourage writers to identify and then to express the most important parts of their journalistic message. The first example above gives all necessary information; the second is fluff. I think that point is exactly the opposite of what the poster intended.

    What interests me is the use of the breed, brand, crime, and violence (flattened) packed into that one sentence. WOW! Now THAT'S modern journalism. Combined with the high F-K rating, it perfectly illustrates the point of the memo.

    Who cares about whether it was a collie, or whether the car is a Chevrolet or a Toyota? THIS fluffing of journalism is what leads people to think that Paris Hilton's prison garb color was important information.

    I know that many readers appreciate good journalism. A well-crafted article can provide irony or "an edge" while providing the facts. It can do that simply.

    The memo is telling people to stop fluffing up their writing. It is good advice. Journalism students should go to a library and look at a newspaper article... probably any newspaper article... from about 1940 or earlier. They might find that writing that is clear, crisp and informative has been rare for quite some time.

  24. I was taught as a sixth grader that newspapers are generally written to the 5th grade level. When I moved both to Florida and then Missouri, I didn't think they meant have a fifth grader write it for them! I can go through the paper on any given day and find more spelling, grammar and other mistakes than I have fingers. That has something to say about educational system and laziness. Unless it's a biblical quote. Then it's word for word, line by line greatness.

  25. So, basically what the editor at the Plain Dealer is suggesting is that newspaper writers should gear their articles towards the kind of people who don't read the newspaper?

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