In the 1960s, a readability style manual was published. It helped inspire the plain language movement and created the Lensear Write readability formula. But, what was Lensear Write and how can it help your content be more impactful?
What is the Lensear Write readability formula?
The Lensear Write readability formula scores a text based on the number of monosyllabic words and the encouragement to use strong verbs. The score is calculated as follows:
- Count a 100-word sample.
- Count all one-syllable words except ''the", "is", "are", "was" and "were". Count one point for each one-syllable word.
- Count the number of sentences in the 100-word sample to the nearest period or semicolon and give three points for each sentence.
- Add together the one-syllable word count and the three points for each sentence to get your grade.
A score between 70 and 80 is recommended for the average adult reader. Texts with a score below 70 may be too hard-going. A score above 85 may be getting too simplistic.
Where did Lensear Write come from?
Many sources cite the misspelled version of the formula - Linsear-Write - and point to the US Navy as the author.
But, this isn’t where it came from.
Lensear Write was published by John O’Hayre in a 1966 style manual titled Gobbledygook Has Gotta Go.
John O’Hayre was a government employee who was sick of the loss of valuable time caused by stuffy, overcomplicated communication.
As an employee of the Bureau of Land Management’s Western Information Office in Denver, Colorado, the way information was written was important to him. Like we have at Readable, O’Hayre recognized the value of readability not only to the general public but also for internal communication.
He designed the formula for use in government writing aimed at the general public. However, he also stresses that things get done quicker in government when everybody gets to the point.
How did this readability manual inspire plain language?
In the manual, O’Hayre warns against pomposity and ‘officialese’. He points out that many of us fall back on jargon because it makes us feel more comfortable and less exposed than using plain English:
“We know we can’t write simple, straightforward English without a lot of effort, so we automatically fall back on our technical jargon where we feel safest; this kind of writing is easiest for us to do.”
This addresses a common concern about readability - the false assumption that plain writing is somehow lazy or simplistic. As O’Hayre says, it’s actually easier to cloak a concept in stuffy language than it is to express it simply.
He goes on to point out that the assumption that the reader appreciates ‘elegant writing’ is also false. We agree that it’s an outdated assumption and that most readers will appreciate you for respecting their time.
O’Hayre throughout his manual encourages fitting the writing style to the age and not getting stuck in outdated attitudes to language. By bringing your writing closer to the way people speak, you sound more natural.
He also emphasizes the process of becoming the reader as you’re writing, which was highly influential for the plain language movement.
After all, the plain language movement - which was a by-product of the consumer rights movement - is all about keeping the reader in mind.
How can the Lensear Write formula help me?
The interesting quirk about the Lensear Write formula is that it’s just as much about writeability as it is about readability - that is, it takes style into account.
By not giving points for the words ''the", "is", "are", "was" and "were", O’Hayre encourages you to use stronger verbs and avoid passive phrases.
Using the passive voice is a common symptom of officialese. It’s natural to be hesitant and want to disconnect yourself from the topic, but writing in the passive doesn’t solve this insecurity.
By writing in a more active voice - “I wrote this report”, not “the report was written” - your readers will respect you more. They’ll also be more engaged by what you have to say.
The book itself is also a great resource if you want some great tips on how to cut to the chase and write with impact.
His nuggets of advice peppered throughout, such as “becoming the reader is the essence of becoming a writer” echo our own beliefs about readability.
O’Hayre also makes some really helpful analogies about readability. For example, he talks about Einstein and the way he wrote about complicated ideas. Einstein made a concerted effort to write metaphors about scientific theories.
He felt that the average reader has a right to share in scientific knowledge. Because of this belief, he put a great deal of time into writing about science in a way the layman would be more likely to understand.
If Einstein could simplify his writing to make it more accessible and engaging, you can too.
Run your text through ReadablePro and you’ll be able to see your Lensear Write score in seconds. Remember to aim for a score between 70 and 80.
We’ll also give you a unique overall readability grade and pointers on how to improve your readability.
In a time when many sectors were still resistant to language change, John O’Hayre wrote a refreshing communication 101. Still relevant today, he made many people realize that readers are in a hurry.
Writers need to say what they need to say actively and concretely. Thinking should precede writing and excess verbiage should be avoided.
Since O’Hayre’s day, readers are in even more of a hurry. In fact, you have about seven seconds to grab a reader’s attention. Are you getting those seven seconds right?
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