The Art of Plain Talk, by Rudolf Flesch

The Art of Plain Talk, by Rudolf Flesch (Collier Books)
Note: it's plain talk. Not plain speak or plain writing, because that would be... complicated.

Not long after I started with Access Testing, a job came along where a client asked for a readability assessment. Being the resident word nerd, they asked me to take a look into it. The client was a government department, so they were obliged to make sure that their website content was accessible to a wide range of people. The client mentioned a “Flesch-Kincaid” score, which I’d never heard of before. So after hitting up Google for the goods, I learned about readability tests. After pitching some samples of how their text could be improved, we didn’t hear anything else from the client, and so the issue was dropped and I forgot all about scoring text for reading ease and grade levels.

Fast forward 4 months. Jenny and I are looking through a little second-hand bookshop in Balmain, and she comes over to me with a book and say “I think you’ll like this – it might help you with your writing.” It was called The Art of Plain Talk and cost a grand total of $4. “Why not,” I thought, and bought it along with a few other things, without thinking too much on it. It wasn’t until I started reading, when the author started talking about his formula for measuring readability, that I figured out this was written by the Flesch from Flesch-Kincaid.

The book definitely lives up to its title. It’s the most readable book I’ve ever read on a learned topic, evidenced by the amount of time that it took for me to finish reading it (i.e. not much) – I’ve taken longer to read novels of a similar size. The most interesting thing about this book is that it was written in the 60’s (and my copy seems to date from that era too) and the examples that the professor gives are curiosities in themselves, being a sample of the writing and media of that time. More evidence of the author’s skill: I rarely bothered to read the examples of “difficult” text because they seemed so tedious. Then again, I didn’t bother to do any of the exercises either.

The real challenge will be to see whether my writing has improved as a result of it. I know in my mind that I have to untangle some of the sentence structures that I’ve become accustomed to writing, but it’s a hard habit to break.

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Just for fun, the Flesch-Kincaid score for the above:

Grade level: 11 (bad)
Reading Ease score: 51 (Fairly difficult)

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