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The Legacy of Rudolph Flesch

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Art of Plain Talk

The Art of Plain Talk

You probably haven’t heard of Rudolph Flesch, but there’s a good chance you’ve encountered his work while using a word processor or other digital applications where writing plays a role. Given that The Art of Plain Talk was published in 1946, and that the studies of writing and language have changed considerably since then, it’s impressive that he is still taken seriously today.

So what did Flesch say then that still makes him relevant now?

He argues that writing improves when it’s made simpler and easier to read. Flesch tries to approach English scientifically, generating a formula to calculate how writing can be made more readable. He identifies three key attributes to serve as the basis for what he calls “Plain Talk,” his version of clear and accessible writing. First, it has short sentences (he argues that a text becomes difficult to read when sentence length increases beyond 17 words). Second, it is unencumbered by affixes (either prefixes or suffixes or both). Affixes, he believes, negatively affect the readability of a text and should be either minimized or eliminated. Third, it has many personal references (in the form of personal pronouns), as this increases the accessibility of the piece.

It’s important to see that the attributes are quantifiable. A tally can be generated for each, and these numbers can be plugged into a formula to generate a readability score. This is the science of Flesch’s work. Typically, evaluations of writing are highly subjective, but by allowing for these attributes to be quantified, a text can be viewed completely objectively, at least in terms of its readability.

The readability score is Flesch’s legacy. It has been sold to software companies for use in word processors such as Microsoft Word, where readability scores are usually a component of the spellcheck feature. SEO companies such as Yoast also use the score to help authors create more readable content, although the current iteration of the score formula only tabulate sentence length and syllable count per word.

For many, a science of readable writing will surely have an appealing ring to it, especially in this technology-driven age. The major question, of course, is whether or not people can or should write according to a dictates of formula.

Even if his methods seem unrealistic, Flesch’s work confirms the importance of clarity in writing. The process of revising for clarity may look different from one person to the next, the readability formula simply providing one novel strategy. But if people cannot extract the message from your writing, it is effectively useless. You should always be asking if yourself if your writing is clear enough to be understood.

The ability to run a quick test on your computer is a luxury people did not have thirty years ago. Take advantage of a useful tool that yields good information. How would your revision process be affected, for example, if you learned your writing was ‘slightly difficult’ to read? Would you go back and perhaps try to cut down on the length of your sentences? If the readability score motivates you to do even just a little bit of reshaping and restructuring, then it is good knowledge to have.

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