The Substance of Faith

The Substance of Faith

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Bucket Book – The Technique of Clear Writing

Robert Gunning’s book will not pull the strings of your heart like Les Miserables, but for more than three decades I’ve used  it as a reference work and guide for clear communication.  Whether writing or speaking, I constantly hear Gunning’s advice in my ear, challenging me to be as clear and concise as possible.  People often comment on the brevity of my sermons.  One  major influence in that characteristic of my preaching is The Technique of Clear Writing.

One of Gunning’s chief points is to “take the fog” out of communication.  When the fog is eliminated, clarity remains.  Some of the ways to take out the “fog” is to remove extra words, weak words, and complicated words.  Use active instead of passive verbs.

To help  in this process, Gunning developed a “fog index” that helps communicators measure how simple – or complicated – their communication is.

The Fog Index works this way:

1.  Choose a representative portion of what you’ve written.  In this section count the number of words in successive sentences, ending with the sentence that gives you as close as possible to 100 words.  Divide the number of words by the number of sentences to get your average sentence length.

2.  Count the number of words in this section which have 3 or more syllables.  Don’t count proper names, compound words made from simple words (“bookkeeper” or “paperclip”), or verbs with -es or -ed.  This number represents the percentage of hard words.

3.  Now add your two numbers together and multiply the result by .4

The result is your “Fog Index,” which corresponds to the grade level which can readily read and understand your writing.  Gunning thinks of it as a “readability” index; I apply the same principle in sermons and think of it as “listenability.” The lower your fog index, the clearer your communication.

To make best use of this index, you cannot overestimate your reader or listener.   Many best-selling novels are written at an 8th grade or below index.  Few newspapers print anything above a 10th grade level.  I ran two random tests – one on Coramc McCarthy’s The Road and the other on Ernest Hemingway’s Old Man and the Sea.    The sections I tested showed a reading level less than sixth grade in both books.  No one ever accused either man of insulting the reader’s intelligence.

The key is not “What CAN someone read?”  The question is: how hard will a person work to comprehend?  Once we are out of school and no longer tested on our reading comprehension, few of us will work as hard as we are capable of doing simply to read a magazine or book.  Why else do we pick the books we do for beach reading?

As a reminder, I substitute “listener” for “reader” and “listenability” for readability.”  The same principles apply: how much work will someone put into comprehending a sermon?

Taking all this into account, members of our congregation will, hopefully, recognize that I make a constant effort to be clear in my preaching.  It all goes back to Gunning’s book, which has “Bucket”status for me.

If you find the conversation about the Fog Index interesting, you will want to know that Microsoft Word has a similar tool built in to it.  Rudolph Flesch was a contemporary of Gunning’s who developed his own readability scale and it is a standard tool in MS-Word.  To utilize it:

Click the Microsoft Office ButtonButton image, and then click Word Options.

  1. Click Proofing.
  2. Make sure Check grammar with spelling is selected.
  3. Under When correcting grammar in Word, select the Show readability statistics check box.

Flesch calculates scores a bit differently, but the resulting grade level of readability is very similar.   Check out your own fog.  If your score is above 10, rewrite and simplify.

P.S. This article scores 6.1, more than a grade level higher than McCarthy or Hemmingway.


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I remember having a brief introduction to the “fog index” before retiring. However, I did not remember the author. I have MS Office, but was not aware of this option. Should have used this when doing the Deacons’ minutes last year. Again, thanks. Ken

Ken Nance

April 28, 2013