Readability question?

Subject: Readability question?
From: Geoff Hart <ghart -at- videotron -dot- ca>
To: TECHWR-L <techwr-l -at- lists -dot- techwr-l -dot- com>, David Dubin <David -dot- Dubin -at- sage -dot- com>
Date: Thu, 04 Jan 2007 16:10:03 -0500

David Dubin wondered: <<We develop technical training for human resource management system software and payroll software and have a very diverse audience. One of the "standards" that we are in the process of discussing across our business units is that of readability levels. So, to be brief, would you please share with me the readability levels you target for specific audiences and/or cite other sources that may have that information?>>

Readability levels are a waste of time, and provide no useful data. (Steven Jong should be rebutting this statement in about 30 seconds. Hi, Steve! Long time no argue! <g>) There was an interesting article published a while back that demonstrated this quite conclusively: "Last rites for readability formulas in technical communication." BR CONNATSER Journal of technical writing and communication 29:33, 271-287, Baywood, 1999

Other studies (all poorly designed and controlled, at least in the ones for which I've read the journal articles) contradict this paper. That might lead you to have more confidence in the formulas, but think of it this way: if half the studies claim the formulas are useful and half claim they're useless, this is clear evidence that the formulas fail at least as often as they succeed. That makes them a dangerous tool in my opinion. Sure they provide data, but as any scientist (including me, in a former life) will tell you, numbers don't always mean anything.

Want to prove this to your own satisfaction? Take any sentence, and randomize the word order; better still, rearrange the words so that the sentences are mutually contradictory. For extra points, randomize the punctuation. If your readability formula doesn't distinguish between the two sentences, you've just proved that your formula will not detect incomprehensible text. It certainly won't identify illogical, inconsistent, incomplete, dangerous, or factually incorrect text.

So don't waste your time with these meaningless formulas. Instead, hire a good editor, tell them to make sure the text is comprehensible to a general audience, and rest assured that you'll get the results you want.

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Geoff Hart ghart -at- videotron -dot- ca

(try geoffhart -at- mac -dot- com if you don't get a reply)

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Readability Question: From: Dubin, David

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