See through the SMOG

Something kind of awesome happened last week – My friend showed me this clipping from the Isle of Wight County Press about Nathusius’ pipistrelles on the island. ‘What’s so spectacular about that?’, you might ask… If you read the article, you’ll get to the last paragraph and see a species list – including scientific names! (For a quick guide to scientific names and how they work, check out my 2013 blog post Spectacular Vernacular.)

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For a general circulation newspaper, this is pretty much unheard of, as most newspapers pitch their reading level pretty low. I immediately tweeted my kudos to them (omitting the fact that the binomials should have been in italics, as I didn’t want to be too picky! – Points for trying!). I’m not sure if they were super keen, or they generally pitch their text at a higher level than average, or perhaps they were needing to fill that extra inch of column – who knows!

tweet

This was then going to spark one of my ranting blog posts about the dumbing down of science (and, let’s face it – I would have ended up ranting about Neil Degrasse Tyson again).  However, a bit of research googling and I was soon down the rabbit hole in a world of quantification of reading levels, journalism practices and more:

First of all, just because you can read at a certain level, and you enjoy reading, you don’t necessarily want to recreationally read at the level of which you are capable. This may explain the huge trend in the popularity of teen / young adult fiction read by adults: Hunger Games / Twilight / Harry Potter anyone?

(Should point out here that when I left the pub to join the queue for the midnight opening of Waterstones for the Half Blood Prince, surrounded by 10-year-olds in costume, I made sure to request the adult cover, because I’m like, totally grown up and stuff…)

The Impact-Information website says:

“People like to read recreationally two grades below their actual reading skill.”

While wikipedia postulates that:

“The average American reads at a 7th or 8th grade* level which is also consistent with recommendations, guidelines, and norms of readability for medication directions, product information, and popular fiction.”

*ages 11-13

Google have been doing some interesting reading age level comparisons which sum up some popular uk newspapers and their average reading pitch. The Media First website corroborates this, listing The Sun’s reading age level as between 7 and 9.

But to really quantify the reading level of any piece of text, be it an online article, an essay, or even the book you’re writing, you can use a SMOG Index calculator (I’m not even kidding – it stands for Simplified Measure Of Gobbledygook). This genius bit of formula takes the complexity of your text and quantifies it, giving it a score which equates to reading levels!

Fancy SMOG Indexing some of your own (or someone else’s) writing? Try this tool here! You simply paste a section of text into the box and click ‘calculate’.

ages

A SMOG score of 9-10 is equivalent to Entry Level 3 (age 9 to 11); a SMOG of 11-12 is Level 1 (GCSE grades of D-G) and 14-15 is Level 2 (GCSE grades A-C).

For example, the blog post I referred to in the first paragraph – Spectacular Vernacular has a smog score of 16.6 – meaning that it is pitched at around A-Level reading level. I’m pretty happy with that. I try to pitch my blogs at a minimum of teenage reading level, without too much jargon (unless the whole point is explaining the jargon!).

I was always taught that in scientific or academic writing, you should assume two things:

  • Your audience is intelligent
  • Your audience knows nothing about the subject

So you give them the credit of intelligence, and assume that they will understand once you have explained it, but you take nothing for granted and make no assumptions about prior knowledge. I’ll certainly be using the SMOG tool for future writing (fiction and non-fiction), and would love to know what you think about writing, reading and communicating science to the public.

SMOG index: 17.3     😉

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