Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Give My Regards to Schartzman & Heinleken

Have any of you seen the function in Word where you can have it check for 'readability'?  It uses some test parameters developed for the US Navy by some dudes named Flesch and Kincaid and it tells you what reading level any given bit of writing would be at.

Anyway, Daughter shoots me a message last night all bummed because of the score her unedited piece of fiction (she's been working on a book when she feels the urge) came in with.  So, interested in how this whole thing works, I checked it out with a piece of my own unedited fiction.  I came in at 7.2 - which is to say seventh grade, second month. 

Ummm yeah.  Not writing MG here folks.  

But the more I thought about it (and tried to talk KD off the ledge), the more I realized exactly what these tests are designed to do.  They were created to make sure incoming service men could understand the training manuals they were being given. 

And something KD did made it even clearer.  As I was FB messaging her, she took some of what I was saying and plugged it to check for readability.  My general speech scored low, but the one spot where I was screwing around trying to sound all pompous and pretentious scored high.  Voila!  The answer was laying right there in front of us.  This test - and many like it - was not designed to measure the quality of a work of fiction, but merely to check whether people are able to understand the words being used.  The shorter and more common the words, the lower the grade level that can understand it.

Short words and short paragraphs.  That's all.  (Total words divided by total sentences) plus (total syllables divided by total words).

They don't even take into account a word's meaning or the meaning of the words once they're put into a sentence or paragraph.  Deeper meaning?  Well, that's not their job. 

And btw, KD found out about this from a professor who apparently thought it was a good thing to have his students check the readability of their work before they turn it in.  I'd like to drive up there right now and punch him in the nose.  This test was never designed for that.  The readability of a training manual is one thing.  The readability of a person's writing is entirely something else. 

Anyway, to paraphrase an awesome line from a most awesome movie "And you can sit here and smugly lecture me on the importance of tests? Tests which exist to pigeonhole a writer's potential, a thing which cannot *possibly* be measured, least of all by anal compulsive HUNS! ... And I think my work is bright, and sensitive, so I have no doubts whatsoever about its intelligence. I do however have *serious* doubts about YOURS."

So, yes, that professor can give my regards to the people who took poor Flesch and Kincaid's work and tried to apply it where it had no business being applied.  (Yes, Microsoft, I'm pointing at you, along with the rest.)  Bah and Feh.

*bonus points if you can name the movie I've quoted in both the title and paraphrased in the above paragraph.


  1. OK - now I have to wait for someone to come up with the movie, because I can't think of it right now.

    And I'm not plugging my stuff into that test. Am.Not. Seriously - not! OK, I might :(

    Interesting how things that are meant for one thing get applied to something somewhat related and mess everyone up - context, people, context.

  2. Lol I had to cheat and look up the movie (I've never seen it). I wont say what it is, in case someone else is trying to be good and think of it on their own ;)

    Anywho... I've never heard of that test. It sounds ridiculous!

  3. I'm a little afraid to see what the readability score for my WIP is... hopefully something higher than 5th grade. LOL