See what you learn when you try it by hand
Sure, you can find out the reading ease of your copy the easy way — via Microsoft Word’s readability statistics (PDF). But the pros know how to figure the difficulty of reading their copy by hand.
I think all writers should run a readability formula on their copy by hand — once. That will help you understand what you’re measuring and how to fix the obstacles to reading your copy.
Here’s how to run the Gunning Fog index on your copy:
1. Choose a sample.
Count out a sample of about 100 words, ending with a complete sentence. Here’s a 101-word example:
“Think about how opals are made. Opals are brilliant gems that form inside rocks. In its raw form, an opal is part of a dark brown or black stone, with a fiery blue or red center. Craftsmen chip away at the black rock that surrounds the opal to expose the jewel inside.
“In a story, clutter – too many words – can mask the great quotes, the stunning twists of phrase and the dynamic anecdotes — just as the dull rock can mask the opal. It’s the stone you chip away that defines the opal; it’s the words you chip away that define the story.”
2. Divide the number of words by the number of sentences.
That gives you your average sentence length. Our sample has an average of 17 words per sentence.
3. Count “hard words.”
Those are words with three or more syllables. Skip:
- Proper nouns
- Compound words that were once two simple words (“bookkeeper,” for instance)
- Words that grew to three syllables with a suffix, such as “ed.”
Our sample has three: “dynamic,” “anecdotes” and “fiery.”
4. Add your average sentence length to your number of long words.
For our sample, that’s 17 words per sentence plus three long words for a total of 20.
5. Multiply by .4.
The result is the average number of years a reader must have spent in school to understand your writing. In our sample, 20 x .4 = 8, which means it is written at the 8th grade level — about the level of Ladies’ Home Journal.
The lower the number, the easier your copy is to read. Best bet: Keep your copy’s level in the single digits.