Why Not Just Say Spider? (Or Improving Readability in Your Writing)

Thursday, April 04, 2013
Do you try to impress your readers with fancy-pants words? Do you use “arachnid” instead of “spider”? Or perhaps you’ll throw out a phrase like, “wandering eight-legged spinner” instead of “spider.”

It’s a lovely phrase, “wandering eight-legged spinner.” But most of the time, using the simple term will keep your reader focused on your story, rather than your pretty writing. Packing your writing with purple prose phrases and fancy-pants vocabulary is a sure road to rejection. So why not just use spider?

Yes, there are times when our writing should have an impressive slant. But it should never be so impressive that a reader gets lost in our words. For most of us, writing in the everyday world, that means we need to keep our words and sentences clear, simple, and focused. We need to think about readability.

That’s where readability tools come into play. Once you enable these gems in your writing tools options on a Word document, I’ll bet you’ll wonder how you ever managed without them. With one click, you can see whether your text is highly readable—or not so much.

The basic statistics (like words per sentence) will give you a good idea of whether you’re over-writing. I tested a couple passages from a contemporary best-selling novel, Angels and Demons, using paragraphs packed with dialogue to those heavy on description. The average count came to 14 words per sentence. Fourteen words per sentence seems like a good standard. I mean, if it’s good enough for Dan Brown, it should be good enough for the rest of us, right?

Next, I thought it would be fun to try an experiment, to compare my writing against a best-selling novelist’s writing. So I used passages of similar word counts (300-ish) from Angels and Demons and my humble blog post here. Let’s see how I did, shall we?

The words per sentence came to 12.2 in the Angels and Demons sample. And my blog post? 13.9. That’s in the Dan Brown ballpark, so I’m happy.

Next, I can see whether I’m overusing that pesky passive voice. Dan’s passage weighed in at 4%, and my lowly post came in at 0%, thank you very much.

Now it’s time to check out the Flesch Reading Ease score. The higher the score, the better the readability. High scores (A long-ago editor of mine required scores in the 70’s) mean that your fancy words are few, that your sentences don’t run on, and that your text is broken into a couple paragraphs.

So, let’s take a look at Dan’s passage: 69.4 (Impressive). My blog post: 69.6 (So there.).

Finally, I checked the grade level. Brown’s novel sample comes in at 6.6, while my blog post sample comes in at 6.8. I think sixth grade is a good target for any adult market, and 6.8 is pretty close.

In fact, my numbers, overall, are pretty darn close to best-selling novelist’s Dan Brown. And now it’s your turn. Compare your writing against work in the field you’re trying to break into and see how your numbers stack up. With practice and an eye to readability, your writing will improve for your readers.

And then together, friends, we shall take over the writing world. Bwahahahaa!

~Cathy C. Hall


Angela Mackintosh said...

I think excessive description and "fancy-pants words" are common problems with many beginning writers. I recently re-read a draft from years ago and part of it was so ridiculous--layered with description--that it was like reading poetry. Beautiful words, yes, but the story faded into the background. I think I was trying to impress my critique group with my prose!

I don't use the readability statistics as much as I should. I will have to try your Dan Brown trick! ;)

Margo Dill said...

I love that--FANCY-PANTS WORDS--I'm going to start using that phrase. Maybe you should copyright it?? :) Interesting idea to compare yourself to a novelist. I agree with Ang; I might just try that myself.

As a freelance editor and writing instructor helping writers all over the world, I have seen some doozy fancy-pants writing. And I know that every one doesn't take my lowly advice. But now, I have some concrete tools to share with them!

Nice post. :)

Cathy C. Hall said...

Oh, I cringe at some of the fancy-pants writing in my past--and yes, it's the curse of the newbie (wanna-be literary) writer. We think we have to be so la-ti-da to be successful.

When all we really have to be is ourselves!

Renee Roberson said...

I often feel like my writing isn't "flowery" enough. Now I feel much better about it. Now, off to have fun with some of these readability tools!

Sioux Roslawski said...

This post was incredible, Cathy. You extended some mind-boggling advice that will probably prove to be--except in extenuating circumstances--priceless.

Okay, it's too taxing to write semi-high falutin'. I give up.

Great advice, Cathy.

Cathy C. Hall said...

It really is harder to be high-falutin'--glad you gave it up, Sioux. 'Cause in the words of Billy Joel, I like you just the way you are. :-)

Donna Volkenannt said...

Thanks for the great advice and helpful links, Cathy. I have a lot to learn about taking off my fancy pants words.

Linda O'Connell said...

Cathy, I learn something every time I read your posts. This was very helpful. Thanks.

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