Friday, April 11, 2014

readability, and my first Oregonian article

applique counterpane, c. 1820, Achsah Goodwin Wilkins 

I love having the opportunity to write for a variety of publications. My first article written for The Oregonian is now online and will appear in print before end of the month. The article is about investing in collectible quilts. Click here to read it.

Today I posted a link on Facebook, and there was some interesting discussion about reading levels. I wanted to talk a little about that in today's blog. When you work in journalism and publishing for a long time, there are certain practices that are part of the process, but it's easy to forget, people usually do not know about these practices. Running readability tests on finished copy is one of those practices.

Mass media publications are typically written at an eighth grade reading level, and that is not meant to be an insult to anyone who is educated beyond the eighth grade. I appreciate it because it makes newspapers and magazines very quick and easy to read, and easily digested.

For me, the most interesting aspect of readability statistics is how the reading level relates to an academic writing style. Last week I was reading an online article written by two quilt historians. The article was barely readable in my opinion. After the Facebook discussion today, and running a readability test on my own copy, I was curious to see how my writing compared to the other article.

my article
article written by quilt historians
When I compared the two sets of statistics, it was easy to see why the article written by the quilt historians was such a struggle to read. First, it was twice as long as the typical magazine or newspaper article. There were more sentences per paragraph and many more words per sentence than in my article.

Most enlightening were the readability statistics. The Flesch Reading Ease score was below 40 in the article written by the quilt historians. In my article, it was already on the low side at 56.2. The Flesch-Kincaid Grade Level for my article was 9.3, ninth grade. The other article was written for a 12th grade level.

That's a very significant difference. It speaks directly to the reasons why quilt history has such difficulty reaching the mainstream, and is also why I am able to easily communicate to a mass audience. As a side-note to the discussion about readability, it is worth mentioning that most mass media outlets use AP style, whereas academic writing uses Chicago style.

During the last year, as opportunities have come my way more and more often, folks have said they do not understand why some people seem to have all the luck when it comes to getting published. It's not luck. Readability is one of the main reasons why I get many of the opportunities that others do not. 


  1. Now I feel like writing shorter sentences. And also, a lot less of them!!!

    1. L. O. L.

      (was that three one-letter sentences? or what?)

  2. thanks Bill! Good share...oh and your recent comment on my blog...came as a noreply. It's got to be a Google+ thing. I'm having difficulty sharing my blog posts via Google+. :(
    As for your comment, it was hysterical!!!!!! Only a guy would be brave enough to say what you did! lol

  3. I'm also appreciating the article. I checked my recent newsletter article and it came out with a readabililty of 64+% and a 7.9 grade level.