THURSDAY THOUGHTS! - Do you know what a "fog factor" is?

Posted by | September 20, 2012 | Thursday Thoughts | No Comments

Have you ever had to read the same paragraph more than once – sometimes maybe even over and over again?  If you have, several things could be happening, not least the author might be writing for someone other than you.  By this I mean that you could be a practitioner reading an academic journal; a member of the public trying to get their heads around a highly technical business document; or even a University Professor trying to de-cypher a young persons text speak.  Perhaps you spend hours on end writing a beautifully crafted committee report which doesn’t receive the level of engagement you expected or needed?

The thing is – not everyone who reads your work or listens to your words, lives in your world.  By that I mean they don’t eat, sleep and breathe the language, jargon, terminology etc which occupies over 90% of your day.  If you have to present to public audiences, this is especially true with much more care needed in these forums, or else your audience will noticeably doze off!

Been there, seen that happening?  Well, it could be because you (or someone you are watching) don’t understand how the Gunning-Meuller Fog Index works.  Robert Gunning worked with the most popular newspapers and magazines.  His mission? To improve readability (and therefore circulation!). The result was the Fog Index.  So I will give a brief explanation of it but first, please do this:

  • select a random sample of your writing that consists of 100 words
  • work out the average sentence length, i.e. divide the number of word in the sample by the number of sentences
  • count the number of long words in your sample.  A long word has three or more syllables
  • Add the average sentence length (from step 2) and the number of long words (from step 3)
  • Multiply the sum by 0.4 to find your fog index

If, instead of the paragraph above, I had just presented the formula for doing this, I know instantly that many of my readers would now start flicking over to other blogs, because many of them might find formulas an instant barrier, turn off, etc.  But it looks like this for those who particularly like formulas 🙂

0.4* ((words/sentence) +100 (complex words/words))

But we don’t need to know the formula, or get frightened by the sight of it, we just need to do the 5 simple steps above or even visit and it will do it for you via a cut and paste!

So lets assume you now have your results from the above …. You need to know what it’s telling you.

The index represents the number of years of education needed to understand your writing easily.  An index of 13, for example, would mean that the writing is appropriate for a reader with 13 years of school (i.e. an 18 year old = “A” level standard).

Most newspapers are written at a reading level for 13-17 year olds, which is a fog index of 8-12.  That’s generally a safe index as its accessible to a wide range of audience. Less than 8 gives you near universal readability. If you write too high, or too low, your readers may find your writing either difficult to understand (have to re-read several times), or even insulting (and stop reading completely).  Same goes for listening to presentations for that matter – a lesson which isn’t nice to learn in front of the public or your colleagues.

The best way to reduce your Fog Factor is to use simple words when simple words will do!  Easily said, hard to do on a daily basis!

So …. “whats your fog factor and what are you doing to reduce it?”

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Sharon Davidson
Organisational development professional specialising in personal, team and whole organisation improvement. Full range of OD tools and techniques available including: Belbin team role analysis; learning style inventories; 360 degree feedback; cultural assessments; personality psychometrics; strategic planning and workshop facilitation. (This list is not exhaustive!)

Improvement is everyone's concern: +44 1550 720902 will start that process today.

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  • Alison Crawford says:

    This is a very interesting and timely post, I am just embarking on a project where I need to write a Users Guide to a rather hideous technical system. In fact previous versions of the document are so bad that the contract was ammended to bring it in-house. I’ll be using this tool to assess the readability of the existing docs and using it to pre-test my own documentation so I can make sure it’s better. I’m new to the system I’m writing about and already I’m finding the jargon and accronyms impenetrable, so it’s definitely a challenge….

    So what do I do? Well, I write lots of technical docs as part of my day job, so structure is very important. I write summaries for everything on the front page, something I could present to my mum and she’d be able to understand (ie a good reading age, but assuming no previous technical knowgledge). I then structure sections for two main groups – decision makers, and technical specialists. I assume that no-one reads the whole document, as I rarely do, so each section must be self contained and not require the reader to read previous sections. And any document that when printed out is too thick to staple, is too long, so that’s when I do some harsh editing.

  • Aresko says:

    Sounds interesting Alison. Would be interested to know the usefulness of this tool to the overall result.

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