February 10, 2009


Elephant talk (donkeys, too)

I presume most professional writers run a spell check on their work upon completion. At the end of its spell check routine Microsoft Word offers the option of presenting certain figures regarding readability, and to a journalist a few of these are important while the others are possibly interesting.

My experience with the MS Word Readability Statistics caused me to find interest in a recent item on HuffPo that compares Barack Obama’s first press conference on Monday night with that of George W. Bush on Feb. 22, 2001. The Obama effort was deemed superior in terms of intellect - no surprise there.

Obviously there are several factors outside of the readability paradigm that account for the difference in the two PCs, primarily the subject(s) at hand. For Bush it was the schwinging out of his saber on Iraq (ineffective sanctions, Sadaam bad, WMD, Chinese presence in Iraq).

Obama’s was well over twice as long, with long-winded answers primarily about the economy but with a few switches to foreign policy and bipartisanship.

Just for shits and giggles let’s look at it from a journalist’s point of view, as I have been told by editors numerous times to KISS (Keep It Simple Stupid), a concept that, for newspaper articles, is anchored in readability.

First, the Obama presser:

Here is Bush’s:

You can see that both run very close in sentences per paragraph (rather subjective, especially in a spoken press conference) and in characters per word, the latter being somewhat surprising with regard to my assessment of Bush’s vocabularial contentificationism. Of course the big news is the grade level and the related “reading ease,” both determined by brainy linguists under the auspice of the Flesch-Kincaid Readability Test.

Considering that the room is full of journalists, certainly all college graduates, one might presume that it’s a good thing to have your press conference rated at a 10th grade level. But oh no says Mr. Editor – KISS for our reading public, who average about an 8th grade reading level. The reading ease figures translate thusly:

90–100: easily understandable by an average 11-year old student

60–70: easily understandable by 13- to 15-year old students

0–30: best understood by college graduates

I continue this incredibly fun comparison by offering up the stats on a long-winded article of my own:

I have acknowledged that I am a not-so-successfully recovering wordaholic, addicted to sesquipedalian pursuits of the most grandiloquent order. Few of my articles have reached that holy grail of an 8th grade reading level.

The final criteria to cover here is the use of passive voice, to be avoided as much as possible in news writing for the purposes of, say it with me, "Readability" (I consider myself doing well to keep my articles under 12 percent). Obama’s press conference likely had more passive sentences than Bush’s because it was much longer, but credit must be given to Shrubster for his simplisticosity on this one. Those 7th grade Republicans would be proud.

I, on the other hand, appear to be a lost cause:


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