Saturday, 15 March 2008

Reading by numbers

I am indebted to Karen Schriver, author of Dynamics in Document Design, for posting a note to the Info-Design Cafe mailing list about a recent article in the Wall Street Journal about readability formulas.

In his article "Can you read as well as a fifth-grader? Check the formula" columnist Carl Bialik discusses the readability formulas included in word processing software such as Microsoft Word, and discusses the value of the mechanical application of such formulas. He has opinions from both supporters and detractors of readability formulas, and counts both Karen Schriver, and Professor J. Peter Kincaid, one of the original instigators of the Flesch-Kincaid formula used in Microsoft Word, amongst those who question the value of the formulas.

I recently read a far more sustained attack on readability formulas, and in particular on their "dubious use" by the UK's Department for Education and Skills (DfES), written by Martin Cutts of the Plain Language Commission. In Writing by numbers: are readability formulas to clarity what karaoke is to song? Cutts complains that public bodies like the DfES use readability formulas as part of their propaganda and ignore the obvious shortcomings of what he terms "crude" tests. He notes that the main problem with readability tests is that:

[those] who apply them uncritically tend to assume that any 10-sentence [passage] with, say, 12 polysyllabic words is as good and clear as any other with 12 polysyllabic words. But its grammar and punctuation may be poor and its message muddled, ambiguous or misleading. Such findings are only likely to emerge after usability testing (not readability testing) or editorial scrutiny or both.

In an effort to offer an alternative to the flawed readability formulas, Cutts and the Plain Language Commission have published a Plain English Lexicon, available free of charge for download from their website. The lexicon helps you find out whether the words you write will be easily understood, by comparing their grade level in the US Living Word Vocabulary (LWV) and their frequency in the UK British National Corpus (BNC). Words that have low LWV grade levels and high BNC frequencies should be easily understood by readers on both side of the Atlantic, according to Cutts. As long as the spelling isn't too different over there.

Wednesday, 12 March 2008

On wranglers, and other fancy titles

What's in a name? More particularly, what's in the name of a profession? Some professions are easy to identify by a one word name: tinker, tailor, soldier, spy. Other professional designations are longer: civil engineer, cloakroom attendant, sagger-maker's bottom-knocker, or Lord Privy Seal. (Job titles can get silly - Lois Wakeman has collected some from her local supermarket such as "Oven Fresh Manager", and I have spotted nice ones in Social Services departments like "Teenage Pregnancy Team Leader".)

For my particular professional activity there is no single agreed term. I like to call myself an Information Design Consultant, because what I can do goes far beyond just writing the right words. But I have been called a technical writer, a technical communicator, an information developer, a technical author, a documentation specialist, or more fancifully, a font fondler and a member of the word police (and of the Word police as well). Scott Abel goes by another term - he calls himself the Content Wrangler.

At the University of Cambridge a wrangler is a student who gets first class honours in mathematics; it's also the name of a brand of jeans; and in the US in particular it's someone who handles animals, particularly cattle and horses, professionally. I think it's this meaning Scott had in mind - a content wrangler herds words and content elements together, selecting the best ones and coralling them into the places they need to be. Not an easy job, but immensely satisfying if done well. Scott is a content management specialist, a conference organiser, and a first class speaker himself, and his Content Wrangler web site and newsletter are extremely popular amongst us technical writers/authors/communicators.

Less than two weeks ago Scott launched a social networking website for anyone interested in "content wrangling" called The Content Wrangler Community, and yes, it is one of the groups on Ning that I was invited to join last week.

According to Scott:
The Content Wrangler Community is the new social network dedicated to people who value content as a business asset, worthy of being effectively managed. This is the place where technical communicators, medical and science writers, marketing pros, content management gurus, indexers, online community managers, document engineers, information architects, localization and translation pros, e-learning pros, taxonomists, bloggers, documentation and training managers, and content creators of all types hang out. It's much more than a blog. It's a place to join peers, to share, to collaborate, to contribute, to find information.
"Social networks are about connecting people and ideas," said Scott Abel, manager of The Content Wrangler Community. "Web-based social networks are the natural evolution of the web from a passive broadcast medium to a multi-directional communication platform that more closely supports the way humans interact in the physical world. We congregate. We join others like us. We interact with birds of a feather. Until the advent of social networking tools, the web failed miserably to connect people in meaningful ways."
I think this community is a great idea, and so do about 680 others, at the last count. I certainly need all the help I can get when I am "wrangling" words and pictures and information content into the right size and shape and format for my clients' needs, and I am sure I'll get a lot of inspiration here.