Character-count Formula For Readable Writing

By Nirmaldasan


A short sentence is a readable sentence. But how short is short? Even a long sentence is short if what it communicates cannot be expressed in fewer words. A standard sentence, however, is usually assumed to have 17 words.

Readability formulae indicate the suitability of texts for grades 1 to 17. William H. DuBay’s Principles Of Readability, available online at http://www.impact-information.com , records the long history of readability. The character-count formula (CCF), which I have evolved, is an outcome of the e-mail discussions I had with DuBay. I am indebted to his suggestions. He sent me 62 graded passages on which I tested this formula and got a Pearson’s correlation coefficient of 0.7106.

Though the CCF, with its lower correlation coefficient, is not as reliable as the Dale-Chall formula or Flesch Reading Ease or Gunning’s Fog Index, it is very easy to use. If C1 is the number of characters (no spaces) in a sentence, then CCF = C1/10. For example, take the opening sentence of this article. It has 34 characters. Therefore, CCF = 34/10 = 3.4. For a better estimate, CCF = C10/100, where C10 is the number of characters (no spaces) in 10 sentences. There are 734 characters in the first 10 sentences. Therefore, CCF = 734/100 = 7.34. The greater the score, the greater the text difficulty. A standard score is 10.

The CCF can be easily applied to technical texts, which consist of special characters. Copy and paste the complete document in Microsoft Word. On the tools menu, click ‘word count’. A statistics box will show you, among other data, characters (no spaces). Now CCF = Cn/10n, where Cn is the number of characters (no spaces) in ‘n’ sentences. In case of high score, here are some suggestions for reducing the score:

* Break a long sentence into two
* Delete superfluous words
* Use numerals and symbols, wherever possible
* Replace long words with short synonyms

Now test the edited passage and find that there is nothing better than plain English.

The CCF for this whole article is 6.2.

— This article appeared in the July 2005 issue of the Journalism Online newsletter —

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