Let’s play a game today.  Before clicking on the “More…” link below, please read the following excerpt and post a comment critiquing the writing style by any or all rubrics you deem appropriate.  Feel free to comment on the paragraph’s style, grammar, word choice, but whatever else you do please also include a thought on the paragraph’s “readability.”

Please prepare to supply a readout of your findings and recommendations to the officer of the Southwest Group at the completion of your study period.  As we discussed, the undertaking of this project implies no currently known incidences of impropriety in the Southwest Group, nor is it designed specifically to find any.  Rather, it is to assure ourselves of sufficient caution, control, and impartiality when dealing with an area laden with such potential vulnerability.  I am confident that we will be better served as a company as a result of this effort.

As soon as you’re done grading and posting, read on.

This paragraph and all of the quoted text in this essay are taken from Technical Writing: Process and Product, 5th Edition by Sharon and Steven Gerson, the textbook for my class “Professional and Technical Writing.”  It is part of a section of the book entitled “The Goals of Technical Communication.”  One of the professed goals, according to the textbook, is clarity and conciseness.  Reasons cited are that conciseness saves time and money, and text generally has to fit in a “box” (e.g. e-mail, PDA, cell phone screens).  The above is an example of a “poorly-written” paragraph; the book cites lack of conciseness and long paragraph length.:

In addition to the length of the example paragraph, the writing is flawed because the paragraph is filled with excessively long words and sentences.  This writer has created an impenetrable wall of haze — the writing is foggy.

This is where, reading the textbook, I started to narrow my eyes.  Impenetrable wall of haze?  Excessively long words? Which words are you talking about?  “Impropriety”?  “Recommendations”?  Are either of those words too difficult for any thinking person?  Did any of you reading the paragraph find it impossibly difficult to read?  Are you starting to question the criteria of the book’s editors?  As Bauchman-Turner Overdrive might say, you ain’t seen nothing yet.  The book goes on:

In fact, we can determine how foggy this prose is by assessing it according to Robert Gunning’s fog index.  The following is Gunning’s mathematical way of determining how foggy your writing is.

    1. Count the number of words in successive sentences.  Once you reach approximately 100 words, divide these words by the number of sentences.  This will give you an average number of words per sentence.
    2. Now count the number of long words within the sentences you have just reviewed.  Long words are those with three or more syllables.  you cannot count (a) proper names, like Leonardo DaVinci, Christopher Columbus, or Alexander DeToqueville; (b) long words that are created by conbining shorter words such as chairperson or firefighter; or (c) three-syllable verbs created by –ed or es endings, such as united or arranges. Discounting these exceptions, count the remaining multisyllabic words.  (A good example of a multisyllabic word is the word mul-ti-syl-lab-ic.)
    3. Finally, to determine the fog index, add the number of words per sentence and the number of long words.  Then multiply your total by 0.4.

Despite the silliness inherent in claiming to be able to mathematically deduce a particular paragraph’s readability (I thought the only way to tell if a paragraph was readable was to read it?), this system hasn’t quite lost me yet.  I can understand the utility of a system that allows you to diagnose how dense your writing is.  Edmund Burke, for example, would probably score about a 200 on this scale, while C.S. Lewis might score something closer to 50.  The paragraph above scored a 15.6 on this rubric.  What does my textbook say about that (following emphases mine)?

What does a fog index of 15.6 mean?  Look at Table 3.2.  It shows that the paragraph is written at a level midway between college junior and senior, definitely above the danger line.

A fog index of 15.6 enters the danger zone for two reasons.

    • Approximately 28 percent of Americans graduate from college (“College Degree” 2005).  Thus, if you are writing at a college level, you could be alienating approximately 72 percent of your audience.
    • College graduates do not read well.  According to the National Assessment of Adult Literacy, “The average American college graduate’s literacy in English declined significantly over the past dcade.”  Only 31 percent of college graduates could read lengthy, complex English texts and draw complicated inferences (Dillon 2005).

Given these facts, many businesses ask their employes to write at a sixth- to eighth-grade level. To accomplish this, you would have to strive for an average of approximately 15 words per sentence and no more than 5 multisyllabic words per 100 words.

At this point i was so agitated I literally had to stop reading and do something else for a few minutes to cool off.  This is why there is a reading crisis in this country; our textbooks are telling our students to dumb down their writing!! Why do you think college students can’t read, Gerson?  Do you think it’s because you’re telling them not to educate themselves? Elsewhere in this chapter the book makes the claim that sending your reader to a dictionary is a negative occurrence.  As one last snippet, I’ll post the aforementioned Table 3.2:

table32

Note with horror that the textbook actually uses romance novels and magazines as the scale by which your writing is to be judged.  Most grimly amusing is the warning for college-level writing “No popular magazine scores this high.”  Oh no!

This is preposterous.  I understand the need for conciseness.  I understand that much of writing is about communicating ideas, not impressing your readers.  But I absolutely refuse to dumb down my writing for anyone, CEO, middle manager, supervisor, or shift worker.  It’s incomprehensible to me that any purported institute of education could even think about instructing its acolytes to not strive for their full potential in every aspect of their education, including writing.  If you are in business, and you are the sort of person who turns down deals because you didn’t understand a few words of the proposal and your pride won’t let you look things up in a dictionary, you are cheating yourself not only of business but of knowledge.  You’re probably also the sort of person who would stare blankly at me when I described my job this summer.

I always have trouble ending these stupid essays eloquently.  What are your thoughts, dear readers, on the above?  Am I overreacting?