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The Fog Index

Posted on Friday, December 29, 2017 at 9:49 PM

Assessing the readability of a NewYorker.com excerpt.

This month, we're taking a look at a sample passage from a December 21 article on NewYorker.com ("As Winter Snows Disappear, Dogsled Racers Are Trading Skis for Wheels" by Meera Subramanian). Here's the excerpt, with longer words italicized:

"By the second day, the snow had melted just enough to turn the trails into a muddy but navigable quagmire. When the organizers announced, early Sunday morning, that the race was on, the grounds erupted in excitement and movement. The Omernicks headed to their truck to get the team hooked up, and soon Pogo and the other dogs were straining at their lines. Keith positioned himself in a wide-legged stance on his rig, fingers curled around brakes that would stop working when he hit the first big puddle. Then the team was off."

Word count: 93 words
Average sentence length: 19 words (20, 19, 24, 25, 5)
Words with 3+ syllables: 5 percent (5/93 words)
Fog Index: (19+5) *.4 = 9 (9.6, no rounding)

As you may remember, an ideal sample carries a Fog Index under 12. This sample falls well within the ideal range at 9. What can we learn about clear, succinct writing from this sample, and how can we apply that wisdom in our own work?

One reason the Fog Score is low: simplicity of word choice. The writer reaches for the rafters sparingly, using three-plus-syllable words only when the sentence calls for it. Apart from the phrase "navigable quagmire" in the first sentence, we never see two longer words in a row. In a more problematic sample, we might rephrase here and there to reduce a higher Fog score, but it isn't necessary here. Cutting through the Fog is about simplifying our writing to reach a wider audience, not stripping a writer of his or her voice.

Sentence length also contributes to the Fog Index here. We have 93 words split into 5 sentences. This helps with the average sentence length component of our score by keeping the total below 20. (In most cases, we find that we're already underwater if we see an average sentence length above 20. Unless the writing is very conversational, the percentage of longer words generally drives us over the Fog "cliff" in those instances.)

The take-away here: Don't under-write, and certainly don't over-edit, in pursuit of an ideal score. In this sample we see that a 25-word sentence can be offset by a 5-word sentence. A few "fancy" words are neutralized by a few dozen simpler ones. If you write with this kind of moderation in mind, you'll find that your Fog Index will fall within range naturally.

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