The Press: Say It Simply

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Newspapers complained that too many of the stories they got from the Associated Press were wooden and hard to read. But none of them would—or could—say why. To find out what was wrong, the A.P. hired Dr. Rudolf Flesch, Vienna-born psychologist, author (The Art of Plain Talk) and Mr. Fix-It of writing. Dr. Flesch's report shocked the A.P.

Said he: "The stuff is monotonous.... The leads are not more readable than the stories—as they naturally should be—but less readable. . . . What's more, the better the story the worse the lead. . . . Foreign dispatches are consistently less readable than U.S. dispatches. . . ."

Why are the stories hard to read? Too many long sentences and too many Latin words. Irt Flesch's "standard" writing (i.e., "what the average American will read with ease and interest"), a sentence should contain not more than 19 words; 100 words not more than 150 syllables. A readable story should also contain at least 6% "personal" words (names and personal pronouns) and 12% "personal" sentences (questions, commands, requests).

Running over a day's output of the A.P., Dr. Flesch found that the stories were far below his standard. They varied from "fairly poor" to "poor" (his next to lowest grade). He cited one horrible example of a lead: "University of Washington scientists reported today experiments have shown that microplankton organisms act as radioactivity 'carriers' in Bikini waters, keeping the waters radioactive." How many readers, asked Dr. Flesch, know what "microplankton organisms" are? The same story was turned over to the A.P. science writer, Howard W. Blakeslee, to Flesch out. His version: "Discovery of the missing links that will spread dangerous atomic bomb atoms to human beings was reported today at the University of Washington."

The A.P. took its medicine like a man. In effect, it ordered all hands to learn to say it simply or get out. And it plans to have Dr. Flesch read copy on its stories for a year. Last week, the A.P. professed to see an improvement, but was still finding plain English hard to write. In a memo to the staff, Assistant General Manager Alan Gould wrote: "Too frequently it seems that we contrive the hardest way to say some of the simplest things."