2011-02-14 10:41:25How to write plain English
John Hartz
John Hartz

While researching an issue on Real Climate, the following post in a comment thread to the article I found jumpted out a t me. It's interesting from more than one perspective. Note the date, Enjoy!

James Acres says:

I hate to be blunt and mean: You guys are wasting your time. No one who doesn’t agree with you is going to fight through your essays as currently writen. You are fighting the good fight — but you’ve no chance of winning.

I used the readability tool in MS Word to check your entry “Are Temperature Trends Affected by Economic Activity.” Your piece is less readable than journal articles in Harvard Law Review. Your piece is slightly easier to read than the average insurance policy.


Clarity and efficiency in writing is important on the web and in email. More important than on the printed page. Computer screens cause substantially more eye-fatigue than do printed pages. So people scan to compensate.

For clarity of writing on the web I’ve found the work of Dr. Rudolf Flesch helpful. He developed a formula back in the 40′s for readability. I’ve begun using it for my own web writing and email and noticed real improvement in audience comprehension.

A quick review of his work is here:


Newer versions of MS Word include a readability-checker with the other grammar tools.



1) Revise your pieces using some sort of readabilty tool in your word processor. While imperfect it will give an objective idea of how readable your pieces are.

2) Get a grad-student from the Lit or Writing department to write for you. (Personally — I wish all researchers would do this with all their publications! :-))


Apologies for being so brutal. What you guys are doing is great! Research is of much greater utility when it’s more accessible. I just worry you’ll get discouraged from the lack of success.

James Acres

2011-02-15 06:38:32


I agree completely with the message from James Acres.

If I were the "approval czar", I would not pass any Basic Rebuttal or Blog Posting with a reading level greater than 8th grade.

If an article isn't comprehensible to the target audience, it has no impact.


2011-02-15 07:23:33
Daniel Bailey
Daniel Bailey

Thanks for that tip on the readability checker.  Checked two of my posts: one published (9th grade level) and one in progress (12th grade level).


Got some editing to do...

2011-02-15 08:12:10


There are also web tools which perform this function

This is the output for the last SkS article

Readability Results

Web Address: http://www.skepticalscience.com/global-carbon-cycle-david-archer-review.html This page has an average grade level of about 10. It should be easily understood by 15 to 16 year olds

Readability Indices

Flesch Kincaid Reading Ease64.2
Flesch Kincaid Grade Level8.2
Gunning Fog Score10.3
SMOG Index8.1
Coleman Liau Index12.2
Automated Readability Index8.8

Text Statistics

No. of sentences169 
No. of words2617 
No. of complex words311 
Percent of complex words11.88% 
Average words per sentence15.69 
Average syllables per word1.50

What do these results mean?

The indicator bars give a visual guide for the readability of the text. Red is a low readability score. Green is easily readable

However, according to the same site this text is supposed to be easily understood by a 14 year old!

2011-02-15 09:00:51
Mark Richardson

If you paste the URL it also includes all the comments, which drags down my lofty use of language... :P

14-15 for my rebuttal to Willis Eschenbach. Reckon he'll be able to follow it?

2011-02-15 09:05:04
Mark Richardson
Also, RC is designed to be advanced, for people actually interested in climate science. We could really do with a populist science site like WUWT, but with accuracy. Unfortunately, facts and proper analysis probably don't draw as many readers as WUWT's latest feathered up non-story.