Category Archives: Musings

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!

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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’.

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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     😉

And some things that should not have been forgotten were lost.

Someone asked me this week if I miss my old job. In the 6 months since I left my post as Senior Countryside Officer I can honestly say: Not one bit. Don’t get me wrong, I’m immensely grateful for the 6 years I spent working for Walsall Council. I had an amazingly supportive boss and incredible colleagues, and I was basically allowed to do what I wanted with the job. Each person in the role approached it differently, and for me, that meant science events, stargazing, bushcraft, basketry, peregrines, amphibians, bats, urban ecology and lots and lots of social media.

I spent almost the entire 6 years there at risk of redundancy; justifying my own existence; quantifying my worth, and watching my colleagues do the same, but in spite of that I loved the job. I really loved the job.

I think I was pretty good at it. I certainly had fun, made friends, grew as a person. I don’t know what really changed, but by about a year ago, I knew that it was time to leave. Of course I can list the logical reasons why I couldn’t stay: job insecurity, I had hit the ceiling as far as job progression (unless I wanted chaining to a desk), lack of personal and professional development… but it wasn’t that. I just knew something had to give.

I’m not entirely sure what the catalyst was, but somehow the last 6 months have meant a complete change in life for me, of my own choosing: I changed jobs, moved house, ended a 15-year relationship and have basically voluntarily upended my life. (Of course the little voice in my ear whispering the words midlife crisis is there, but I’ve always been the type of person who can cut their losses and start again, so I genuinely don’t think that’s what’s going on.)

As Ray Bradbury put it: I pack up my dinosaurs and leave.

So I’m wondering why I’m not scared. I’m wondering why I’m not sad. And here’s the rub: I think that, finally, I am comfortable in my own skin. No small feat for the girl who, 25 years ago, was a risk-taking, self-harming runaway, hitch-hiking across the USA.

You often hear it said: What advice would you give to your younger self? – What would I say to that headstrong and reckless 16-year old? The temptation to start talking about being true to yourself, to cultivate good friendships and prioritise your family, etc is a strong one, but you know what?  I know from experience she’ll get there in the end.

So what would I say to her? Not a fucking thing. I’d listen to her, because she was brave and she was passionate, and these days I could learn a trick or two from her. As put so well by Tolkien’s Galadriel: …some things that should not have been forgotten were lost.

So, you know what? I don’t miss my old job. I don’t miss my old life. And I don’t have any regrets. I’m prioritising. I’m attempting to live life unapologetically. I’m bringing back the things that used to mean so much to me that I’d set aside, and learning to let go of everything else.

Guess I’ll let you know how that all goes…