IMPORTANT: This topic is about the fog index. However, all of the following examples contain discussions of multiple subjects—not just the fog index. Therefore, in addition to the fog index, you are going to learn a lot of different things about good writing and rewriting.
REWRITE THIS SENTENCE
We like to make fun of inept writing in this blog, but this is not a bad sentence. Actually, it is a well-put-together general statement about the network traffic analyzer (NTA) service module. The author is a well-educated senior network engineer. The quote comes from a nine-page white paper.
The problem with this sentence, which is representative of the entire white paper, is it is addressed to other senior network engineers. As a technical writer professional, you might be asked to make the paper readable for a more general audience.
As an exercise, let’s take a small step first. Can you make the example sentence more readable?
According to the Gunning Fog Index formula, it takes 23 years of education to understand the example sentence in the first reading. That is a tiny audience.
Obviously, if you could rewrite it as two or three sentences, the required education level drops dramatically. This is why I stress over and over again that you keep your sentences as short as possible. You want your reader to read a sentence just once, then move on to the next sentence. Long sentences cause the reader to read difficult sentences more than once.
The sentence begins with a long dependent clause:
For environments that have many devices that generate network flow data and many interfaces for which administrators want to collect data
and ends with the independent clause:
careful planning of NTA traffic analysis task management is essential.
Environments have two things:
- Many devices that generate network flow data
- Many interfaces for which administrators want to collect data
You might turn those two bullet points into simple declarative sentences:
Environments have many devices that generate network data flow. The environments also have many interfaces for which administrators want to collect data.
Or you could phrase it this way:
Environments have two things. They have many devices that generate network data flow and they have many interfaces for which administrators want to collect data.
That sounds better. Now, let’s look at the independent clause.
Here is the independent clause:
careful planning of NTA traffic analysis task management is essential.
The first thing we do is rewrite it in the active voice:
It is essential that you carefully plan the management of your NTA traffic analysis tasks.
Next, you need to edit out redundancy. NTA stands for network traffic analysis. Literally, the original text reads as follows:
careful planning of network traffic analysis traffic analysis task management is essential.
How about this?
It is essential that you carefully plan the management of your network traffic analysis tasks.
[one sentence, 31 words]
For environments that have many devices that generate network flow data and many interfaces for which administrators want to collect data, careful planning of NTA traffic analysis task management is essential.
[three sentences, 40 words]
It is essential that you carefully plan the management of your network traffic analysis tasks. Environments have two things. They have many devices that generate network data flow and they have many interfaces for which administrators want to collect data.
NOTE: The education level is 13.3 years now. We dropped the reading level from post-doctoral to college freshman.
REWRITE THIS SENTENCE
This sentence is a classic case of joining two independent clauses for no good reason. Apparently, the author is not going to be satisfied by writing two short declarative sentences. But that is exactly what the author should be doing!
Keep it short and simple. Your reader will thank you.
One more thing. I don’t like the word optionally.
As written, the example sentence takes 19.71 years of education to understand with the first reading.
This example sentence has two distinct ideas:
- As an option, you can override the origin resource path.
- You can specify a different origin base URI for the resource.
There you go—just say it that way.
You can also optionally override the origin resource path and even specify a different origin base URI to use for the resource.
As an option, you can override the origin resource path. You can specify a different origin base URI for the resource.
NOTE: Our revision lopped six years off the years of education required to understand the sentence on the first pass.
REWRITE THIS SENTENCE FROM A FINANCIAL STATEMENT
Gunning Fog Index
According to the Gunning Fog Index, it takes 31 years of education to understand the example sentence on the first reading. That is a ridiculously high education level.
The sentence is 41 words long. Of the 41 words, 15 words have three or more syllables:
This is a compound sentence (that is, it is two or more independent clauses joined by the connector word or). It is easy to divide the sentence into at least three simple sentences.
How do you get three or more sentences? See the following discussion.
Use the word want instead of wish. Wishing for something is like hoping to get it. The verb form to want is more direct.
Use the Present Tense
Change have been to are.
Do you ever wonder why you hate to read mortgage loan papers when you buy a home? Or the fine print in your insurance policies? Or the legalese on a financial statement, such as you see here with our example sentence?
It’s because legal documentation can be horrible. Let’s make this sentence not horrible.
The first thing you do is to break it up into two or more sentences. That improves the readability considerably. Actually, all the words following or if you wish to impose lead into another compound sentence. You can break that into two parts also.
Second, rewrite everything in the present tense. Avoid the perfect tenses.
As for the big words, remember this is legal documentation. Lawyers choose their words for very specific reasons. Even if you changed the three-syllable words to more humble words, the lawyers are probably going to restore the three-syllable words. Lawyers are most concerned about their version of accuracy. Readability is not a concern at all.
Please notify your Financial Advisor if there have been any changes in your financial situation or investment objectives, or if you wish to impose any reasonable restrictions on the management of your Investment Advisory accounts, or to reasonably modify existing restrictions.
Are there changes in your financial situation or investment objectives? Make sure you talk to your Financial Advisor. You may impose any reasonable restrictions on the management of your Investment Advisory accounts. Also, you may reasonably modify existing restrictions.
REWRITE THIS SENTENCE
This is the third paragraph of Peggy Noonan’s March 5, 2015, column in the Wall Street Journal titled, “Stuck in Scandal Land: As long as she is in public life, Hillary will protect and serve herself.”
No question Noonan is an excellent writer. But this is a shockingly bad example of expository writing. The example sentence has four principal errors:
- Too long—96 words
- Incredibly high fog index—45 years of education required to comprehend the sentence in just one reading
NOTE: The Gunning Fog Index counts this sentence as three sentences because of the periods after Mrs. and Inc. That is one of the flaws in the Gunning algorithm. It is still one sentence.
- Vocabulary usage—contains 20 three-syllable words (every fifth word!)
- Past tense—should be present tense because according to Noonan these issues with Mrs. Clinton started years ago and continue into the present. Noonan gives us a confusing mixture of past and present tense; it is hard to follow her narrative. If the problems are still happening now, we should use the present tense. See the Revision section for one way to do it.
This sentence scores 45 years of education on the fog index:
Because Noonan is an A-list columnist, it is possible the Wall Street Journal lets her upload her columns to the WSJ website without any copy-editor review. Those pesky editors just slow down the process!
We are not going to let her off so easy.
Ready? Let’s have some fun!
OK, you know the drill. This is your process:
- Capture the entire sentence and paste it into a worksheet
- Strip out the component parts and arrange them in a bullet list
- Reconstruct each component part as a simple sentence
- Reassemble the content into a sequence of simple sentences
Before we begin, however, we need to keep in mind she frames this long sentence as a question. That is her intent. We need to keep the entire passage in the context of a question. Even our rewritten declarative sentences must support her general interrogative objective.
Here are the component parts for the example sentence:
- Why is Mrs. Clinton hiding her email record as our top diplomat?
- Is it because she is doing good work with respect to immediate and unfolding international events?
- Or is she shielding those who want to make an impression on her by contributing to the Clinton Foundation?
- The Clinton Foundation funds many noble causes.
- However, it is also the seat of operations of Clinton Inc. and its numerous offices, operatives, hangers-on and campaign-in-waiting.
Did you notice we replaced some of the three-syllable words with more readable synonyms?
Is it too much to imagine that Mrs. Clinton wanted to conceal the record of her communications as America’s top diplomat because she might have been doing a great deal of interesting work in those emails, not only with respect to immediate and unfolding international events but with respect to those who would like to make a positive impression on the American secretary of state by making contributions to the Clinton Foundation, which not only funds many noble causes but is the seat of operations of Clinton Inc. and its numerous offices, operatives, hangers-on and campaign-in-waiting?
Why is Mrs. Clinton hiding her email record as our top diplomat? Is it because she is doing good work with respect to immediate and unfolding international events? Or is she shielding those who want to make an impression on her by contributing to the Clinton Foundation? The Clinton Foundation funds many noble causes. However, it is also the seat of operations of Clinton Inc. and its numerous offices, operatives, hangers-on and campaign-in-waiting.
Now, seriously, don’t you think our rewrite is more readable? And more effective? We increased the number of sentences from one to five. We reduced the number of words from 96 to 73. We reduced the fog index from 45 years of education to 11 years. We reduced the number of three-syllable words from 20 to 15.
Did we lose anything in the process? Did we leave anything out?
We lose Noonan’s long, free-flowing, stream-of-consciousness sentence structure. We lose her breezy conversational style. But what good is a magnificent run-on sentence if you have to read it three or four times? Instead of gliding along from beginning to end, as Noonan intends, you have to start and stop several times.
Finally, we have her original sentence down to just under 13 years of education. Much better for readability!
REWRITE THIS SENTENCE
This sentence comes from an article written by Max Fisher at Vox. The headline is, “One sentence that explains the breakdown in US-Israel relations.” Fisher cites a quote by Jeffrey Goldberg in the June 29, 2015, Atlantic. Yes, it concisely summarizes the strained relationship between the United State and Israel. However, from the standpoint of readability, this 48-word sentence is a disaster.
Allow me to explain.
Let’s talk about readability and why it is important.
Whether you are writing software documentation or a piece about foreign policy, the basic principles of readability apply. Short, declarative, simple sentences are easier to read than long, complicated sentences. Can we all agree on that?
I would submit Jeffrey Goldberg is less concerned about you, the reader, than he is about designing a magnificent sentence that explains everything you need to know about what’s wrong with US-Israel relations.
Dear reader, don’t fall into that trap. Don’t ever put your ego ahead of your intended audience.
What is Goldberg saying? I see four distinct ideas. Let’s break out his sentence into its component parts:
- President Obama is not the cause of poor relations between Israel and the United States.
- Israel’s own settlement policies in the West Bank are far more worrisome.
- These settlements endanger the two-state solution.
- Also, the settlements endanger Israel’s future as a democracy and a haven for the Jewish people.
OK, to prove my readability point, let’s run the example sentence through the fog index and compare the results to my four-sentence rewrite. Here is the example sentence again:
Click the Calculate button.
Ouch! Thirty-one years of education to understand the sentence on the first reading! Do you really want your reader to read the sentence three or four times to get the meaning? The question answers itself.
Now take my four-sentence rewrite, and drop those sentences into the fog index:
Even though we are using the same vocabulary, we cut the fog index in half. We’re down to the junior year of college. Much better!
Finally, ask yourself: Did we lose anything by converting a 48-word sentence into four sentences totaling 49 words? Maybe no one will praise you by writing an article titled, “Four sentences that explain the breakdown in US-Israel relations,” but so what? If you get your point across in a clear and concise manner, consider yourself a success!
It is Israel’s policy of continued settlement in the West Bank—settlement that endangers the two-state solution, and therefore Israel’s future as a democracy and as a haven for the Jewish people—that puts daylight between Jerusalem and Washington, not a president who calls Israel out for its settlement policy.
President Obama is not the cause of poor relations between Israel and the United States. Israel’s own settlement policies in the West Bank are far more worrisome. These settlements endanger the two-state solution. Also, the settlements endanger Israel’s future as a democracy and a haven for the Jewish people.