Here’s a post from Anne R Allen, which I saw via The Passive Voice Blog. The post is about WordPress, but here’s the part that caught my attention:
With the Yoast plug-in, you don’t get a list of rules. You discover each one when the elves give you a red, amber or green light on your copy. If you get a red or amber light, you must scroll down and find out what you’ve done “wrong” according to the Yoast rules. …
Here are the things the readability elves will ding you on:
They give you an automatic red light if you start three sentences in a row with the same word. So never quote Charles Dickens “It was the best of times. It was the worst of times. It was the age of wisdom…”
Ah, I said. One of THOSE “readability” algorithms. Yes, indeed. How very helpful. Other things that the “readability elves” dislike: long sentences, long paragraphs, more than 300 words after a subheading, the passive voice, words with more than four syllables.
Sometimes I’d like to go through the world of words and find examples of things that absolutely meet “readability” standards in every way, without actually being readable. I actually have a specific example in mind. Long, long ago, when I was TAing a basic Bio class of some sort, the class switched one semester from the pretty good textbook we’d been using for years — I’ll call that Textbook A — to a much less good textbook, Textbook B. So I went to the TA coordinator for this class and asked about that, and without a word she handed me the newest edition of Textbook A.
It had been revised according to current readability standards. This was a Biology textbook that now had very few words over four syllables and was trying to get by at a seventh grade reading level and whatever else was mandated by the readability standards of the time. It was therefore utterly useless. A complete waste of paper and ink. No one could have learned anything from it.
“Ah,” I said. “Textbook B looks fine, then.” And that was it for Textbook A. I don’t know if a future edition ever repaired the damage.
Even a couple of decades later, this incident is what comes to mind when I hear about readability.
Anyway, the rest of the post is about getting Google to move your blog higher in search results and I’m sure that’s interesting, but it’s not what caught my eye.
Here, if you are interested, is a Readability tester. I imagine it’s somewhat different from the one Allen refers to, but it pops right up in a Google search, so I imagine the Google elves like it. I plugged a thousand words from TUYO into this tester and here’s what I got:
Flesch-Kincade Grade Level: 4.8 — I suspect this is because Ryo usually thinks and speaks in short, relatively simple sentences.
Gunning Fog Grade Level: 7.1 — I wonder if this is because the vocabulary is more advanced than fifth grade? I don’t know how the two grade level things make their decisions.
One hundred and two “issues” that should be addressed. A hundred and two! In a thousand words! Wow. Let me see. Lots of spelling queries, which yes, that’ll happen in a fantasy novel. This readability checker wants me to break up all long sentences. It appears to think anything over 25 words is “really long” and anything over 15 words is “long.” I’m tempted to paste in some sentences that are actually really long and see what it says.
Unsurprisingly, perhaps, this checker would like me to remove all adverbs. I do get weary of the constant adverbs-are-bad drumbeat. I wonder if any of you noticed that Ugaro basically have two intensifiers: very and extraordinarily. Ryo seldom if ever uses other intensifiers. The Lau have a more varied vocabulary and generally speak with longer sentences and so on.
I note that the checker thinks I did a good job avoiding cliches. Well, glad it’s happy about something.
Out of curiosity … I have Door Into Light here … let’s try 1000 words or so of that one … ah, the very different style certainly comes through.
Flesch-Kincade Grade Level: 7.3
Gunning Fog Grade Level: 9.5
Interesting, isn’t it? I knew the style was different and I specifically knew I was giving Ryo a distinctive voice with short, relatively sentences and more than usual repetitiveness of vocabulary, but wow, this is sure very different.
On the first page, this readability checker thinks that ALL BUT THREE sentences are “long” or “really long.” It identifies the word “unpredictable” as a “hard word.” (!) It does not recognize somewhat obscure words like “hewn” and “skirl” and tells me those are spelling mistakes. Good heavens, it thinks that if you start a sentence with “when,” the sentence is probably a fragment. I wonder what other dependent clauses it fails to recognize.
It’s moments like this that make me think we really should just drive a stake through the heart of all readability algorithms. To the extent anyone takes them seriously, these sorts of scores have GOT to drive reading ability and general text comprehension downward, while potentially producing textbooks that are completely useless.