Since I make my living as a geek, I’ll occasionally share techie tricks that I use to make my life easier as a writer.
Drop me a comment if there’s something specific you’re wondering about. I’ll help if I can.
Here’s my tip of the day:
Get Readability Statistics For Your Document
Microsoft Word calculates readability statistics based on the length and complexity of the sentences and words you use in your document. It doesn’t tell you anything about whether your writing is “good” or “bad”, but it can give you a hint if you’re making your readers work too hard.
The Counts are self-explanatory (and you can find them more easily than by using this method). I’m assuming you know how to find your word count; if not, drop me a comment and I’ll do a post on it.
The Averages are used in the formulas that calculate the three things that concern me most as a writer: reading ease, grade level, and passive sentences.
The frequency of passive sentences is an interesting stat for fiction writers. All the “how-to” books warn against passive voice, and this is a handy-dandy way to see at a glance if you’re overdoing it.
Reading Ease is based on a 100-point scale. The higher the score, the easier the document is to read.
The readability score at the right is for my flash fiction piece “Freedom” (about 1000 words). It’s told from Dave the trucker’s point of view, and you’ll notice that sentences are short, readability is a whopping 93.5, and it’s written at a Grade 1.7 level. Dave is not a complicated guy.
“Freedom, Too”, the companion piece told from Beth’s point of view, comes in at Grade 4.6.
Another day, another 1000 words. Just for contrast, here’s the score for a technical piece that one of my clients requested, describing the ramifications of the Privacy Act here in Alberta. Trust me, you don’t want to have to wade through this puppy.
(Disclaimer here: As a technical writer, I usually write as simply as possible, but this one was full of polysyllabic legalese. Kinda like those last two words.)
Conventional wisdom states that for most writing, you should aim for minimum readability of 60 to 70, at a Grade 7 to 8 level. And yes, that includes non-fiction writers. Despite the complexity of his concepts, Albert Einstein’s papers still clocked in at about a Grade 8 reading level.
How To Do It
Here’s how to get these little gems of wisdom in Microsoft Word (sorry, Mac users, Apple doesn’t consider this a priority. Readability stats don’t exist in iWork at the moment.)
First, you have to set Word to show the readability stats (this is a one-time thing).
In Word 2003 and earlier, go to the Tools menu and choose Options; or
In Word 2007, click on the round Office Button in the top left corner, and choose Word Options (lower right corner of box.); or
In Word 2010, click on the File tab and choose Options.
Click Proofing (this will be a tab in 2003 and earlier, or a menu selection in the left pane for 2007 and 2010).
Select the “Check grammar with spelling” checkbox.
Select the “Show readability statistics” checkbox.
After you have this set up, get your readability statistics by running your spell-checker through the entire document. (I’m assuming everybody knows how to do this, if not, drop me a comment and I’ll do a post on it.)
Unfortunately, you do have to spell/grammar check the entire document before you get the stats. When the check is complete, the readability window pops up automatically.