I’ve come to realise that Lord Diplock and I are poles apart. There are no grounds for a reconciliation. I had all but forgotten about him until the other week, when I was reading some companies’ annual reports and he sprang into mind. I had worked my way through pages full of photographs, graphics and text and was shocked to discover I couldn’t understand what I was reading. Individual words yes. Whole paragraphs, no. And why? The reports were gold star, cliché-filled, corporate-type speak. They were written without benefit of many commas or full stops and single sentences contained anything between 35-50 words. The text was as dense as thick fog and once read, impossible to recall.
The man I remembered, Lord Diplock, once defined crime in an 84 word sentence. The sentence has since been said to have a high ‘fog’ factor. The fog factor is not, as you might expect, determined by looking at the weather. Rather, it is by using a Fog Index, which shows clarity of text. The higher the number of words and the higher the proportion of three or more syllable words in a sentence, the thicker the fog. Lord Diplock is a good example of this. So too, are many corporate reports.
So if you want to ensure the recipients of your documents can easily read and understand them, write in plain English. Here are some tips to help…
A standard sentence is one that contains seventeen to twenty words and is easily read and understood by an average reader. Sentences longer than seventeen words are considered more difficult to read and complex sentences (over 29 words) are difficult for any reader to understand. So, to help your readers understand the information you are presenting, restrict your sentence size to seventeen – twenty words. Resist the temptation to go on, and on, and on, and on, with only your trusty companion, the comma, for company.
Tempting as it is to play word bingo with corporate-speak, do remember that jargon can be interpreted several ways, be confusing and a real barrier to understanding. “Fiscally-sound, output-orientated infrastructure” looks good, sounds good, but what does it really mean for the reader? To help your readers to quickly grasp your message, keep it free of jargon or confusing, long-winded terms. Resist the temptation to call a spade an elongated, dedicated, efficient and robust gardening aid that guarantees desired outcomes. A spade is just a spade.
Spelling and Punctuation
It’s confusing now with the common usage and spelling of American English and ‘English’ English. Punctuation too, can be an area fraught with difficulties, with the perils of the wandering apostrophe and placement of commas, semi-colons and their other small companions. A good document is one that is ‘correct’ in grammar usage, punctuation and spelling. If you want to ensure readability and present a professional image of yourself and your organisation, ensure everything is right. Use a dictionary and a grammar book. Resist the temptation of thinking ‘it looks about right’. It mightn’t be.
A good writing style is ‘clear’. This means documents are readable, coherent and unambiguous in their content. It means a document has all the information it requires, for its purpose. It means a document is concise, has the right amount and level of detail, only necessary words and relevant content. It means it is written with the receiver in mind and has a respectful tone. Succumb to the temptation of developing a good writing style and keep the seven key characteristics in mind – clear, complete, concise, considerate, courteous, concrete and correct.
Fog Factor Test
If you’re unsure whether your written documents have a high or low fog factor, check them with Gunner’s Fog Index. Find a sample document and (1) count the number of words per sentence (2) count the number of sentences within the passage or paragraph (3) count the number of big words of three syllables or more (4) calculate the average sentence length by dividing the number of words by the number of sentences (5) calculate the percentage of big words by dividing the number of big words by the number of words and multiplying by 100 (6) add the average sentence length to the percentage of big words and multiply that result by 0.4 = the Fog Index score. Lord Diplock’s famous sentence on crime has a Gunner’s Fog Index of 43.12 whereas Shakespeare’s writing has a Gunner’s Fog Index of about 6. Reasonably clear writing has a Fog Index of between 9 and 12 – a good range to aim for.
And my plea? Write company documents that are easy to read and be understood. Use standard sentence lengths. Avoid complex, marathon sentences bereft of appropriate punctuation. Your readers will thank you.