Do you use the excellent Yoast (or some other robo-editor) to assist your online literary endeavours? I do, and very helpful it is. The other day, however, I was re-reading Simon Gray’s The Smoking Diaries (see my review), with its wonderful erratic, rambling, meandering prose. And I wondered how Yoast’s criticisms and suggestions relate to ‘writing’ more generally.

Kindly Mr Yoast

I have come to imagine Mr Yoast as a kindly schoolteacher, maybe nearing retirement. He makes simple, sensible suggestions:

‘No, no, no, Lewis. Lots of your sentences are too long. Busy people today can’t be bothered to read more than 20 words at a time. Heavens, they’ve forgotten the beginning of the sentence before they got to the end! You can almost always cut a sentence in half. And the same for your paragraphs. Look at this, a great indigestible lump. Nice little bite size pieces, that’s what people like.’

‘Yes, sir.’

‘And look at all these passive voices. “The mat was sat on by the cat”. It’s confusing, pompous – evasive, even. (And don’t use dashes and brackets like this all the time.)’

‘No, sir.’

So, generally good, solid advice, certainly for online posts and such, and very often for writing in general. Maybe just a tad pedantic, a bit unimaginative?

Young Dr Flesch1

But old Mr Yoast has a bright young colleague, Dr Flesch, fresh out of editing school. With maybe a hint of a German accent. He wields the very latest technocratic apparatus to test for ‘readability’. Or, rather, to test for ‘Reading Ease’, which sounds a bit like some sort of literary laxative. Which it is, in a way, I suppose.

Scanned image (for Book 2, chapter 1, of Dickens’s Our Mutual Friend) by Philip V. Allingham.

This is the editorial feedback that always intrigues me the most. It’s so precise, so seeming scientific. Your painstaking work is assigned a score from 0-100 (roughly: see below). A high score is good, ‘easy to read’ or, at worst, ‘plain English’. Anything below 60, on the other hand, is deemed to be ‘fairly difficult’, ‘difficult’, or (below 30) ‘very difficult to read’. My own work usually scores around 40, certainly at first draft. I never know whether to be dismayed by my failure to write clearly, or to be pleased by the obviously ‘challenging’ edginess of my slightly ‘difficult’ prose.

But then I start to wonder, how are these so very exact ‘reading ease’ scores actually calculated? I imagined that the algorithm would consider sentence structure, especially any proliferation of nesting subordinate clauses? (I mean, sometimes you need to take a pencil to Henry James to track down the main verb, the subject, etc.) Too many parentheses of one kind or another (commas, brackets, dashes)? I certainly expected Dr Flesch, like Mr Yoast, to mark down excessive use of the passive voice (‘He was thought to have been murdered’?). It might even pick out dangling participles? (‘Handing me my whisky, his face broke into an awkward smile’.)

But no! The Flesch test of Reading Ease is entirely based upon just two things, namely, sentence length (I.e. the average number of words per sentence) and word length (i.e. the average number of syllables per word). (I guess that’s why the five syllables of ‘readability’ got muscled out by the trim average 1.5 syllables of ‘reading ease’. There is a splendidly simple but oddly exact formula (see Wikipedia article):

206.835 – 1.015 x average sentence length – 84.6 x average syllables per word.

Conveniently, this generally produces a readability reading of somewhere between 0 and 100. (The Flesch-Kincaid formula converts the score into U.S. school grade levels – so a score between 80 and 70, say, is equivalent to 7th grade.)

But even higher and lower scores are possible. ‘The cat sat on the mat’, for example, generates a score of 116 – just off the visible spectrum, you might say, in the literary infra-red. At the other extreme, in the deep literary ultra-violet, a single sentence of Proust’s Swann’s Way scores -515. And there are fashionable literary oeuvres that eschew punctuation altogether, presumably generating astronomically negative scores – the literary equivalent of gamma rays, perhaps?

Gray’s Reading Ease?

But what then of Simon Gray’s curling, swirling text, constantly off at a tangent, distracted by a stray thought, but always (in my opinion) wonderfully readable, and fun? I asked Mr Yoast and Dr Flesch to take a quick look at the first paragraph (which I append below).

Mr Yoast was horrified. This single paragraph (whose length is typical of the book as a whole) is over three times the recommended length of 150 words! His voice trembled slightly as he pointed out that no fewer than 44% – yes, 44% – of the sentences use the passive voice; the recommended maximum is 10%!

‘And look! Look at the sentence length,’ he groaned.

Dr Flesch seized the offending page from his colleague’s hands. ‘67%,’ he whispered. ‘67% of the sentences contain more than 20 words. And the recommended maximum is 20%! You know what this means, don’t you?’ His eyes glazed for a couple of seconds as he checked the calculations in his head.

‘It can’t be, can it?’ quavered Mr Yoast.

‘Yes, the Reading Ease score is’ – Flesch struggled to control his emotion – ‘is only 31! 31! Do you realize how close this comes to being ‘Very difficult to read’? Just a few more long words and, and… It doesn’t bear thinking about. If this had got into the wrong hands, entire 7th grade classes could have been wiped out.’

The two men sat in stunned silence for several minutes. Eventually Mr Yoast reached over and patted his friend’s hand reassuringly. ‘It could have been even worse,’ he muttered. ‘At least there is plenty of variety in consecutive sentences.’

Dr Flesch didn’t seem to hear him.

‘And transition words,’ Mr Yoast continued more brightly. ‘There are enough transition words. Well done!’

Sorry, don’t know where that came from.

Anyhow, where was I? Ah, Yes, I do realize that Mr Yoast and Dr Flesch never intended to pontificate upon literary quality more broadly; their aim is to help me get my message across. For which I am most grateful. I wonder how this piece fares… Oh my Goodness! There’s enough variety in my sentences, and I’m using enough active voice. That’s great! But, most astonishingly, my Reading Ease score is 74.3, fit for the 7th grade at last.

Appendix: Simon Gray, ‘The Smoking Diaries’, first paragraph

So here I am, two hours into my sixty-sixth year. From tomorrow on I’m entitled to various benefits, or so I gather – a state pension of so many pounds a week, free travel on public transport, reduced fees on the railways. I assume I’m also entitled to subsidiary benefits – a respectful attention when I speak, unfailing assistance when I stumble or lurch, an absence of registration when I do the things I’ve been doing more and more frequently recently, but have struggled to keep under wraps – belching, farting, dribbling, wheezing. I can do all these things openly and publicly now, in a spirit of mutual acceptance. Thus am I, at sixty-five, a farter, a belcher, a dribbler and a what else did I say I did, farting, belching, dribbling, oh yes, wheezing. But then as I smoke something like sixty-five cigarettes a day people are likely to continue with their inevitable ‘Well, if you insist on getting through three packets, etc.’ to which I will reply, as always – actually, I can’t remember what I always reply, and how could I, when I don’t believe anyone, even my doctors, ever says anything like, ‘Well, if you will insist, etc.’ In fact, I’m merely reporting a conversation I have with myself, quite often, when I find myself wheezing my way not only up but down the stairs, and when I recover from dizzy spells after pulling on my socks, tying up my shoelaces, two very distinct acts. No, four very distinct acts, each separated by an interval longer than the acts themselves. Naturally, like most people of sixty-five and a day I only grasp my age, the astonishing number of years I’ve completed, by these physical symptoms – within, the child, about eight years old, rages away – I wish it were all reversed, that I had the appetites, physical stamina, and desirability of a healthy eight-year old, and the inner life of a man of sixty-five and a day as I imagine it to be from the point of view of an eight-year old – calm, beneficent, worldly-wise and brimming with tolerance, not to mention forgiveness, yes, I need to be in touch with my inner adult, is the truth of the matter, who has always been lost to me except as an idea. But the truth is that I’m nastier than I used to be back then – back when I was sixty-four, for instance, when I was nastier than I was at sixty-two and so forth, back and back, always the less nasty the further back, until I get to the age when I was pre-nasty, at least consciously, when the only shame I knew was the shame of being found out which was when I was, well, about eight, I suppose.’


The featured image is by Jilbert Ebrahimi on Unsplash.

  1. What follows has absolutely no connection to the Rudolf Flesch who actually devised the Flesch Reading Ease test.