1. sci-fi_nerd_001
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    sci-fi_nerd_001 New Member

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    Flesch–Kincaid readability tests

    Discussion in 'General Writing' started by sci-fi_nerd_001, Feb 19, 2014.

    Hi all,

    A few months ago I read a book called "The Writer's Little Helper". As the name suggests, it's a book with lots of advice and tips to improve your writing. One section that intrigued me was a section about Flesch–Kincaid readability tests. This is a tool on Word that gives your work two scores: one that tells you how "easy" the text is to read, and a second that tells you what age range could understand your document. "The Writer's Little Helper" suggests a minimum of 80% for the first score, and a maximum of 6.0 (meaning anyone up to 6th grade/Year 7 could understand it) for the second.

    When I used this tool on some of my work, I got a score of 77% and 6.4. Given the guidelines stated in the book, this made me feel disheartened. Out of curiosity, I put two more author's work through this test - one of which was Stephen King. The first author did worse than me - 66% and 7.4. Stephen King did even worse - 60% and 7.2.

    Has anyone else used this system? If so, what are your experiences of it? I'm beginning to think the program was written by a programmer who has never read a book in his life!

    Thanks for your help.

    James
     
  2. Wreybies
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    Wreybies The Ops Pops Operations Manager Staff Contest Administrator Supporter Contributor

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    Seriously? The test asks for a goal no harder than that which a 6th grader could read? That's...
     
  3. sci-fi_nerd_001
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    sci-fi_nerd_001 New Member

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    The test itself doesn't ask for that, but that's what the book recommends.

    Yeah, I share your thoughts. What about books aimed at adults? I can understand the need to keep language simple and not use massive words where you can avoid it, but still.
     
  4. Dragonport
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    Dragonport Member

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    I've read about that test in another book, You Can Write a Novel, and I don't think it's supposed to guide you on what age level can read your manuscript. The results can be interesting, but I don't see a point in finding the readability of the entire document. The lower the percentage score doesn't correlate with how "good" the text is.

    It may help when determining pacing, when you want action scenes to be most fast-paced and easier to read (short sentences, short words, active sentences), and reflective scenes to be read slower. When used that way, it can give some variety. But readability is how easily something is read, not its quality or how readable it is.
     
  5. David K. Thomasson
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    David K. Thomasson Contributing Member

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    People have been trying for more than a century to reduce reading and writing to arithmetic. I think it's a lost cause.

    http://centerforplainlanguage.org/blog/whats-wrong-with-readability-formulas/

    https://www.ideals.illinois.edu/bitstream/handle/2142/15490/why-rf-fail.html?sequence=2

    https://pantherfile.uwm.edu/alred/www/pdf/redish-selzer.pdf

    http://www.ascd.org/ASCD/pdf/journals/ed_lead/el_198504_armbruster.pdf
     
  6. minstrel
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    minstrel Leader of the Insquirrelgency Staff Supporter Contributor

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    I sigh when I see this kind of thing. Readability metrics like Flesch-Kincaid are interesting as academic exercises, and might be revealing and even useful to researchers, but I don't think they're of any help to writers.

    I'm always suspicious of people who claim we should write at a certain grade level, as if they assume if we write higher than that, kids won't read our books. I think this is ridiculous. If you don't write higher than the sixth-grader's level, how will he learn to read at a higher level? Kids love to be challenged; if you're telling an interesting story, they'll rise to the occasion and learn to read at the level you're writing.

    I never went through a "young adult" period when I was growing up. I started reading kids' books, but by the time I was nine years old, I was plowing through the classic sci-fi of Verne, Wells, Clarke, Asimov, Heinlein, and everyone else. By the time I was twelve I was digging into my dad's bookshelf and finding Steinbeck, Hemingway, and Aldous Huxley. The first book that stopped me was Gravity's Rainbow, which came out when I was twelve and my dad read it immediately. I picked it up right after he'd put it down and I couldn't get into it - it was over my head.

    I'm not unusually bright. I think the majority of kids could easily handle the material I was reading at the ages I was reading it. We're dimming our kids' brains by writing down to them, when all they want to do is read up to us.
     
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  7. EdFromNY
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    EdFromNY Hope to improve with age Supporter Contributor

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    THIS!!

    I remember when I was in 7th grade, reading a book called The Search for Planet X, which was about the discovery of Pluto. In it was an equation for calculating the gravitation force exerted by one body on another. We were assigned a science project in school, so I decided having all of a half year of introductory algebra, to calculate the force between the Earth and the Moon. It required researching the mass of both bodies, and a couple of other things (don't recall, now). I was an indifferent student, and had no electronic calculator. All I had was lots of paper and some pencils and genuine desire to get the answer. I worked the entire weekend, and it was late Sunday night when I finished (with a mountain of paper with my calculations, a lot of which was some massive long division). It was hard work but it gave me a tremendous sense of accomplishment.
     
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  8. Cogito
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    Cogito Former Mod, Retired Supporter Contributor

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    Readability indexes are useful for business documents. Clarity is those materials is elusive at best. The problem is that the people who write many of those materials are not writers, and the writing is poorly thought out, Worse, the "sentences" structure is so convoluted that it's difficult to understand the author;s intent welenough to fix the writing. Also, the writing is obfuscated with murky and impenetrable jargon.

    The readability indices aren't really measuring the reading level to understand that writing, but there is a good correlation between elevated complexity scores and the need for a rewrite for clarity.
     
  9. David K. Thomasson
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    David K. Thomasson Contributing Member

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    Here is just one illustration of why readability formulas are nonsense. Flesch-Kincaid generates readability scores ranging from 0 to 100, the higher the score the more readable the text. Supposedly. So I tried it on the following two bits of text.

    1. "The huge, shaggy Newfoundland dog met the angry cat. They wrestled for an hour. The cat won by a landslide."
    Flesch-Kincaid score: 90.1

    2. "The cow emitted radons. They fluxed for a quark. The horse decayed."
    Flesch-Kincaid score: 90

    The prosecution rests.

    You can run your own tests here.
     
    Last edited: Feb 20, 2014
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  10. Cogito
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    Cogito Former Mod, Retired Supporter Contributor

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    Of course you can fool the formula. What do you expect? The formula doesn't analyze grammar, and sure as hell doesn't know anything about semantics.

    It doesn't mean that the formula has no use when applied as intended. It will not tell you whether a piece of writing is good, but is quite effective at ferreting out certain types of bad.

    It's most effective in detecting business and academic writing that should be re-examined and possibly rewritten. I would never attempt to apply it to creative writing.
     
  11. David K. Thomasson
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    David K. Thomasson Contributing Member

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    I don't agree with that, but I won't debate the question.
     
  12. sci-fi_nerd_001
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    sci-fi_nerd_001 New Member

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    Thanks for your advice, everyone. I didn't think it was of any use to a creative writer, but it was interesting to hear your own opinions. My conclusion: I won't be using it.

    This is very true!
     
  13. GingerCoffee
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    GingerCoffee Web Surfer Girl Contributor

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    Here's a passage from Hyperion, and excellent award winning sci-fi book. It gets a score of 29:
    It's one thing to make sure your educational materials are suited to the reading level of the lowest common denominator for the target market, but such restrictions do not belong in works of fiction, or even non-fiction novels. Certainly one needs to attend to the age of the readers you write the story for, that's rather common sense.
     
  14. peachalulu
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    peachalulu Contributing Member Reviewer Contributor

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    Stick in Finnegan's Wake and watch the program explode! Lol.

    Seriously though, why shouldn't a writer challenge the reader? Nabokov makes me run to the dictionary but who cares, anyone who can do a triple v alliteration - Vague velvety vileness - *heart to chest, blissful sigh*
    I'll keep a dictionary near and learn a few things. Besides I'd rather a writer write in terms of - I think you can handle it - than a writer who writes thinking - I don't think you can handle it.
     
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  15. David K. Thomasson
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    David K. Thomasson Contributing Member

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    Possibly so, but it can't be done with so-called readability formulas. They are inherently unreliable.

    Why Readability Formulas Fail
     
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  16. GingerCoffee
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    GingerCoffee Web Surfer Girl Contributor

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    I agree.
     
  17. thirdwind
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    thirdwind Contributing Member Contest Administrator Reviewer Contributor

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    I remember reading about how these algorithms work, and they basically look at vocabulary, word length, and sentence length. It's fun playing around with them, but I wouldn't take it seriously.

    By the way, I tested two passages from Finnegan's Wake; one got 91.9 on the F-K scale, and the other got 86.5 The average grade levels were 3.2 and 4.5, respectively.

    What's a nonfiction novel?
     
  18. David K. Thomasson
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    David K. Thomasson Contributing Member

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  19. thirdwind
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    thirdwind Contributing Member Contest Administrator Reviewer Contributor

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    I find the phrase "nonfiction novel" to be an oxymoron. Autobiographical novel or semi-autobiographical novel or memoir, sure. Even creative nonfiction would be a more appropriate term. But nonfiction novel? No way. The other terms are more appropriate IMO.

    The concept of the nonfiction novel is something Capote himself came up with. Whether it's a marketing strategy or something else, I don't think such a term is appropriate even for In Cold Blood. Once you start adding in things like dialogue, it's impossible to claim that the piece in question is nonfiction in any way.
     
  20. David K. Thomasson
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    David K. Thomasson Contributing Member

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    Historians and literary scholars don't agree with you:
     
  21. thirdwind
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    thirdwind Contributing Member Contest Administrator Reviewer Contributor

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    I should have been clearer. Capote came up with the term "nonfiction novel." It looks like that term was later applied to much earlier works.

    I still disagree that such a term even has any meaning.
     
  22. David K. Thomasson
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    David K. Thomasson Contributing Member

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    No, you should have been accurate. Contrary to what you said, the concept of the nonfiction novel has been around for centuries.
    The term (=name of concept) is accepted and used by literary scholars, and defined in dictionaries -- and you declare it all meaningless.

    Excuse me while I wrestle with the question of which side to go with on this.
     
  23. minstrel
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    minstrel Leader of the Insquirrelgency Staff Supporter Contributor

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    Remember, people, this is not the Debate Room. Feel free to rope in the snark, okay? :)
     
  24. thirdwind
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    thirdwind Contributing Member Contest Administrator Reviewer Contributor

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    The concept of a memoir, autobiographical fiction, creative nonfiction, etc. has been around for centuries. These terms have words that don't necessarily contradict each other. Fiction is, by definition, a piece about events and people that aren't real. And a novel is, by definition, a work of fiction. If we start throwing the term "nonfiction novel" around, we may as well consider using the term "fiction novel."

    It's used by some scholars and is by no means accepted. I typed in "nonfiction novel" on Google Books, and I found several writers who called the phrase an oxymoron.
     

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