a little east of reality

Wednesday, February 21, 2007

honk if you can read this

I just did two days of training into public sector writing. Good course, great teacher. By far the most interesting thing we did was a section on readability. The public service tends to be a hierarchical place when it comes to...well, everything. Getting a submission into the hands of decision makers means getting it approved by (in my case, usually) four people: my supervisor, section leader, branch manager and division head.

The problem comes when one (or all) of these people decides to make changes to the document and send it back down the line. This can go on forever and is very frustrating. So it's no surprise really that most people write for their bosses. They know what style they like and they know what they will or won't agree with and they write accordingly. The problem is that some of the documents we create go out to the public, and in pleasing our boss, we can create documents that are way too formal, full of jargon and far too difficult for the people who will use them.

At the course we learned about the Flesch Reading Ease scale. It's not perfect ~ one of its criteria for readability is shorter sentences, and dialogue is usually a series of short sentences, so on its scale of 0 (almost impossible to read) to 100 (can easily be read by a fifth grade student) most of Shakespeare's plays (almost 100% dialogue) comes in around 70. 70 is 'plain English'. But generally speaking, it's fairly accurate. For comparison, this blog entry scores a 62.5 (leaving that super-hard paragraph out).

We tested some examples he had of government brochures. The one I got was an information brochure explaining to health care card holders (unemployed, people on disability pensions, etc) how to claim benefits for prescription medications. Not everyone on a health care card has a low level of literacy or education, but there are a large number in that group who do. Lack of education is a factor in unemployment. This brochure had a readability score of 26 ~ a level that indicates that someone would need 15 years of formal education to read it without trouble.

One of the hardest things we did was to take a paragraph that scored a 0 and try to write a couple of paragraphs that had the same meaning and message, but with a readability of at least 50. My first attempt scored a 29, but my next a 58! The original? Here it is. [Actually I'll edit this in tomorrow when I'm at work.] See what you can make of it. I'll post my easier version in the comments soon.

Here's the rub. I went back to the office today and ran a readability test on the public discussion paper I'm writing...29.7. Hmmm. I have some work ahead of me. I told my workmate, who did the course with me, and she said, 'but that's why we did the course! so we can come back and write better papers.' So true. So my official-sounding jargony public discussion paper is going to get a serious makeover.

The question is, once I make it lovely and readable, am I going to be able to get it past those four bosses, or are they going to tell me that it's too 'simple-sounding'? Only time will tell, and I'll report back in the blog.

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