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The Fog Index

Posted on Saturday, October 31, 2015 at 1:29 PM

Assessing the readability of an NYTimes.com excerpt.

This month, we're analyzing the Fog Index of an excerpt from an October 30 NYTimes.com article ("Ghostly Transcends Its Record Label Roots to Sell an Ethos" by Ben Sisario). Here's the text, with longer words italicized:

"The company commissioned the sculpture from the design studio Snarkitecture in an edition of three, but Mr. Valenti does not really know its purpose yet, other than that it will not be for sale. As dreamlike sounds wafted from one of Ghostly's new releases, an LP of background music from the hit video game Minecraft, the lanky Mr. Valenti mused on the object's possible meanings. Dressed in black slacks, a black sweater and a white shirt buttoned all the way up, he wondered if it might be a 'totem,' a comment about the vogue for vinyl in an age of digital ephemera. Could it stand for the ailing music industry itself?"

--Word count: 111 words
--Average sentence length: 28 words (34, 31, 37, 9)
--Words with 3+ syllables: 7 percent (8/111 words)
--Fog Index: (28+7)*.4 = 14

We selected this excerpt because the writing is quite distinctive. It's more difficult to cut the fog in writing with a unique voice. We need to shave three points from our score -- no small task -- without robbing the author of that voice. Let's see what we can do:

"The company commissioned the sculpture from the design studio Snarkitecture in an edition of three. Mr. Valenti does not know its purpose yet, though, other than that it will not be for sale. As dreamlike sounds wafted from one of Ghostly's new releases, an LP of background music from the hit video game Minecraft, the lanky Mr. Valenti pondered the object's meanings. Dressed in black slacks, a black sweater and a white shirt buttoned all the way up, he wondered if it might be a 'totem,' a comment about the vogue for vinyl in an age of digital ephemera. Could it stand for the ailing music business itself?"

--Word count: 108 words
--Average sentence length: 22 words (15, 18, 29, 37, 9)
--Words with 3+ syllables: 6 percent (6/108 words)
--Fog Index: (22+6)*.4 = 11 (11.2, no rounding)

We were reluctant to make substantive changes in this excerpt. The writing has a carefully crafted cadence that a line edit would destroy. So we applied a light hand to make small, but score-changing, tweaks to improve the Fog Index. The original text contained three sentences with 30+ words. The simple act of splitting the first sentence in two made a big difference, bringing down average sentence length by 6 words. Culling 2 of the 8 longer words also helped.

But there were some longer sentences and words that we had to stet. There's no cheap rewording that can recapture the impact of "digital ephemera," two consecutive words with 3+ syllables. And we could have done a hack job on the second-to-last sentence to make two sentences, but we would have lost the soothing rhythm of the prose. So we left well enough alone. These are basic tenets of good editing: applying your hand only as heavily as the text in front of you demands and showing restraint to preserve the author's voice. Only when a piece of writing is so "foggy" that the average reader would get lost in it should we flex more editorial muscle.

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