How readable is your writing style? Several public domain/ shareware programs for microcomputers can give you fast, helpful insight. If you take the time, several of these programs will also show you how to improve your communications.
Microcomputers can fully justify their existence for word processing alone. But besides wordwrap, formatting, fast text-editing, and mail merge, word processing offers more to the writer who is concerned with effective communication: for example, thought processors and on-line access to spelling checkers and thesauri.
In addition, there are other word-processing aids available, word-processing utilities that provide you with a quick and helpful assessment of your writing style or the readability of your text. This review focuses on programs that range all the way from a quick count of the number of words and sentences in your document, to several programs that can be used to help you learn how to write clear, interesting, and effective English.
Eleven writing utilities for the IBM PCs and compatibles are reviewed here, nine were down loaded from bulletin boards. Some are free-most are shareware programs for which donations up to $35 are requested. One is a commercial product with a $90 price tag. (For reviews of commercial products ranging up to $180, see "The Quest for Style," by Robin Raskin, PC Magazine, May 27, 1986, and "Do Style Checkers Work?" by Barbara Lewis and Robert Lewis, PC World, June, 1987.)
In several cases, there are true bargains here if you are concerned about the effectiveness of your communication. (If you aren't, then why do you bother to write or speak?) These programs are the following, in order of fee/price:
PARSE, published by PC Magazine, free. COUNT, Robert Kiesling, free. EVALUATE, P. Asselin, Ottawa, Canada, free. STYLED, Louie Crew, Hong Kong, contribution not specified. CLEARCUT, Imagination Enterprises, Bryans Road, MD, $5. FOG, Joey Robichaux, Baton Rouge, LA, $15. MAXI-READ, from RWS & Assoc., San Francisco, CA (two versions), $30. PC-STYLE, Buttonware, Bellevue, WA, $30. PC-READ, Wash 'n Ware Software, Baton Rouge, LA, $35. GRAMMATIK n, from Reference Software, San Francisco, CA, $95.
These programs typically examine word and sentence length. Most of the longer programs examine vocabulary and phrases in the process of evaluating the writing style or readability of a document. The text file is usually required to be in ASCII format, although several programs can penetrate the imbedded characters inserted by some word-processing programs (for example, WORDSTAR) to evaluate a document. The report produced at the end of several programs shows the Fog, Flesch, or other indices of readability developed by Robert Gunning, Rudolf Flesch and others. The Fog Index is the grade level of educational attainment of the reader required to understand the document. Longer words and /or longer sentences lead to a higher Fog Index.
Several of the better programs use the scheme developed by Rudolf Flesch to evaluate readability. In addition to reading level,
these programs look at long words, action verbs, and personal pronouns. Several programs print out lists of problem words that the writer has used in his or her text file.
What you do with the report generated by each program is up to you. These programs cannot make poetry out of sludge. The content has to come from the writer. These programs look only at how easily the text can be read by examining words and sentences, vocabulary and phrases. I have found that too often I use big words in long sentences. One paper I recently wrote required a PhD to interpret-so I went back and broke up sentences and used shorter words with more punch to make my points. I think I produced a clearer paper as a result-and that is what these programs told me, too.
Several of these programs provide the chance to learn to improve your communication style. Learning to use these programs will take time. But in relatively short order, these programs will call attention to writing problems so that you may correct them. Repeated focusing on bad habits will alert you to your problems so you can avoid them in the future. It works!
Here are the programs that I found and tested. (A summary data chart is included at the end of the article.) All are fast, all are easy to use, and the price is right. Best of all, you can try each of them out before you have to pay for them. The programs that I found most informative and that I recommend are marked by "***". Enjoy!
This short, fast program was published by PC Magazine. It counts characters, words, long words, and action verbs. It provides a grade-level report that consistently and substantially calculated a grade reading level above every other program with this feature.
|Source:||Downloaded from PC Magazine Interactive Reader Service Bulletin Board, 212/696-0360. Free.|
This program does nothing more than count the number of characters, words, and lines in an ASCII file.
|Source:||Robert Kiesling. No fee requested.|
This program from Canada looks for personal pronouns in your text file-in either English or French-and prints them out on your screen as it scans the text. At the end, it produces a report on your screen that provides counts, ratios, and two measures of readability. The first is a Reading Ease Level, and the second is a Human Interest Scale, both with scales to interpret the reported scores.
|Source:||P. Asselin, 1340 Randall Ave., Ottawa, Ontario, Canada KlH 7R3. Free.|
This program is better described as a course in how to analyze and write clear, forceful, concise English. The program is recommended for revising and polishing the near-final draft of a document. It was written by the Director of the Writing Program of the Chinese University of Hong Kong. It is a program that reads and analyzes text, sentence by sentence-much as an attentive instructor would review a paper submitted by a student. The program consists of four analyses: word length ("skin of a paper"), punctuation ("pulse of a paper"), syntax ("skeleton of a paper"), and nominalizations ("symptoms of cholesterol"). The analyses graphically illustrate your writing skills. The word-length analysis, for example, displays each sentence, highlighting words of ten or more characters and blocking out the shorter words. The report from the analysis of the sentences lists all long words in those sentences. Similar analyses illustrate and provide final reports on punctuation usage, coordinator, subordinator, and transitional words, and forms of to be that may bury action. This program stands out as an example of the instructional potential of the microcomputer, in addition to what it does in the way of analyzing writing style. Perhaps the program does this because that is what its author does for a living.
|Source:||Louie Crew, Chinese University of Hong Kong, Shatkin, N.T., Hong Kong, 0-06066134. Suggested contribution: not specified.|
CLEARCUT is a text file clarification program that focuses on problem words in a text that are overblown, confusing-the kind
often found in governmentese language. It looks through an ASCII text file for "bad" words, and then suggests shorter, clearer alternatives on the screen as it reviews the document. The final screen provides a count of words, average word length, and a table of the number of words at each character length.
|Source:||Imagination Enterprises, 223 Arbor Lane, Bryans Road, MD 20616. Suggested donation: $5.|
This program is based on Prof. Gunning's Fog Index. It examines the first 50 sentences for long words and sentence length. It provides a grade-equivalent reading level requirement to understand the text. The report places the tested file on a chart comparing it with other writing. For example, the Wall Street Journal has a reading level equivalent of 11; Readers Digest has a reading level of 9, and TV Guide has a level of 6. The "safe level" is about 11 or 12.
|Source:||Joey Robichaux, 1036 Brookhollow Drive, Baton Rouge, LA 70810. Suggested donation: $15. (See PC-READ for later version of same program.)|
This is an elaborately designed, professionally presented, easy-to-use readability checking program with an extensive and informative report. The user is presented with several easy-to-use menus, with on-line help available. One can enter sample text or import a file, including one with imbedded characters. The options menus permit one to print out the "sesquipedalian" or long words with the report, print the report on screen, printer, or both, and then provides a progress report on the percent of the file evaluated. This latter helps since the program is somewhat slow-although not considering the extent of the analyses performed. The report gives the grade level (like the Fog Index), Flesch Index, percent personal words, percent sesquipedalian words, and other measures.
|Source:||RWS & Associates, 132 Alpine Terrace, San Francisco, CA 94117. User fee: $29.95.|
This is a notably faster version of l.4 (reviewed above). The program has been rewritten in the C programming language. It
produces a report similar to the report from Version 1.4. There are added features that make the text review by the program more interesting and informative than the earlier version-and the price holds. The author, having been burned by those who distributed his earlier version without returning any contribution for its use, has tightened up distribution. A demo version (2.D) can be downloaded from bulletin boards and tested up to ten times. But after ten times it fails, and you must send in your $29.95 to get an unprotected version.
This is a snappy program based on the readability guides of Rudolf Flesch. Support for the 8087 math chip is available, although it only speeded up calculations by 10% to 15% on the ASCII text files I tested. The program keeps the author informed about how the program is progressing as it works through the text file. The report includes counts of words and sentences. It evaluates words per sentence, percent long words, percent personal words, percent action verbs, syllables per word, and calculates the document's readability level. The program is easy to use, fast, entertaining, and informative, but most of the instruction occurs in the .DOC file.
|Source:||Buttonware, P.O. Box 5786, Bellevue, WA 98006. Shareware fee: $29.95.|
This is nearly the same program as FOG (reported above). This program has added a brief menu that permits one to change the logged drive, change the subdirectory path, and to select a text file from all files on that subdirectory. Otherwise, it provides about the same report, in the same calculation time as FOG. But the author has more than doubled his request for a shareware fee.
|Source:||Wash 'n Ware Software, P.O. Box 91016, Baton Rouge, LA 70821. Suggested contribution: $35.00.|
This is a commercial product, and was top rated by PC Magazine in its 1986 review of five such programs. The free version I received by answering the magazine ad must be more than a year out of date because version 2 was available a year ago. The older
version sent me, however, performed admirably. After scanning the text (with options for identifying problems in the text as it scans), GRAMMATIK provides scores for Flesch's grade level and reading ease, a report on sentence and word counts, and compares the document with several other texts: a Hemingway short story, the Gettysburg Address, and a life insurance policy. Options are available for those who want to use the program to learn communications.
|Source:||Reference Software, 330 Townsend St., Suite 135, San Francisco, CA 94107. Price: $89.95.|
Tom Mortenson is a Student Financial Aid Policy Researcher for American College Testing in Iowa City, Iowa..
Programs Tested on PC-READ.DOC PARSE COUNT EVALUATE STYLED CLEARCUT Version Tested NA NA 1.00 1.6 NA Price FREE FREE FREE INDEF $5.00 Files 1 2 3 12 3 COM/.EXE 896 12299 24400 60472 15103 DOC NONE NONE 2831 43520 3214 .DOC (14848 Bytes) Calculation Time (sec) 3 15 20 NA 29 Counts Characters 13983 14580 NA NA NA Punctuation NA NA NA yes NA Syllables NA NA NA NA NA Words 1750 1744 1747 1750 2454 Bad words NA NA NA NA 27 Long words 242 NA NA 81 (5%) NA Personal words NA NA NA NA NA Action verbs NA NA NA NA NA Sentences 127 NA 143 NA NA Lines NA 350 349 NA NA Ratios Characters/word 4.7 NA 4.9 NA 4.9 Syllables/word NA NA 1.6 NA NA Words/sentence 13.8 NA 12.2 NA NA Readability Reading level (grade) 11.0 NA NA NA NA Flesch Index NA NA 71.3 NA NA Readablility NA NA fairly easy NA NA Human Interest Scale NA NA 21.9 NA NA Personal tone NA NA interesting NA NA Action NA NA NA NA NA p. 75 FOG MAXIREAD PC-STYLE PC-READ GRAMM PC-READ Version Tested 1.0 1.4 2.0 1.0 2.1 1.1 Price $15 29.95 29.95 29.95 35.00 89.95 Files 2 28 10 90 2 2 COM/.EXE 15360 80824 122652 23668 20992 4152 DOC 7168 35840 54047 14848 printed manual PC-READ.DOC Calculation Time (sec) 26 153 108 12 27 54 Counts Characters NA NA NA NA NA NA Punctuation NA NA NA NA NA NA Syllables NA 258 2578 NA NA NA Words NA 174 1744 1722 NA 1791 Bad words NA NA NA NA NA NA Long words NA 10.5% 10% 9.9% NA NA Personal words NA 3.4% 3% 3.4% NA NA Action verbs NA NA NA 1.8% NA NA Sentences NA 143 142 133 NA 124 Lines NA NA NA NA NA NA Ratios Characters/word 4.9 NA NA NA NA 4.5 Syllables/word NA 1 5 1.5 1.5 NA NA Words/sentence NA 12 12 12.9 NA 14.4 Readability Reading level (grade) 8.1 8 8 9.1 7.9 7 Flesch Index NA 69 69 NA NA 77 Readablility NA High High Good NA NA Human Interest Scale NA NA NA NA NA NA Personal tone NA NA NA fair NA NA Action NA NA NA good NA NA p. 76 Programs Tested on Technical Paper PARSE COUNT EVALUATE STYLED CLEARCUT Version Tested NA NA 1.00 1.6 NA Price FREE FREE FREE INDEF $5.00 Files 1 2 3 12 3 COM/.EXE 896 12299 24400 60472 15103 DOC NONE NONE 2831 43520 3214 Technical Paper (21950 bytes) Calculation Time (sec) 3 22 21 NA 50 Counts Characters 21167 21949 NA NA NA Punctuation NA NA NA yes NA Syllables NA NA NA NA NA Words 3231 3253 3257 3253 3397 Bad words NA NA NA NA 42 Long words 600 NA NA 297 (8%) NA Personal words NA NA NA NA NA Action verbs NA NA NA NA NA Sentences 147 NA 149 148 NA Lines NA 391 391 NA NA Ratios Characters/word 5.3 NA 5.4 NA 5.5 Syllables/word N 1.8 NA NA Words/sentence 13. 21.9 NA NA Readability Reading level (grade) 17.0 NA NA NA NA Flesch Index NA NA 36.4 NA NA Readablility NA NA difficult NA NA Human Interest Scale NA NA 21.8 NA NA Personal tone NA NA interesting NA NA Action NA NA NA NA NA
p. 77 FOG MAXIREAD PC-STYLE PC-READ GRAMM. Version Tested 1.0 1.4 2.0 1.0 2.1 1.1 Price $15 29.95 29.95 29.95 35.00 89.95 Files 2 28 10 90 2 2 COM/.EXE 15360 80824 122652 23668 20992 4152 DOC 7168 35840 54047 14755 14848 printed manual Technical Paper Calculation Time (sec) 26 153 108 12 27 54 Counts Characters NA NA NA NA NA NA Punctuation NA NA NA NA NA NA Syllables NA 5482 5445 NA NA NA Words NA 3252 3244 3178 NA 3191 Bad words NA NA NA NA NA NA Long words NA 17.4% 17% 18.2% NA NA Personal words NA 2.7% 3% 2.7% NA NA Action verbs NA NA NA 0.7% NA NA Sentences NA 148 148 143 NA 137 Lines NA NA NA NA NA NA Ratios Characters/word NA NA Na NA NA 5.2 Syllables/word NA 1.7 1.7 1.7 NA NA Words/sentence NA 22 21 12.9 NA 23.2 Readability Reading level (grade) 14.9 15 15 16.1 14.6 14 Flesch Index NA 42 42 NA NA 41 Readablility NA low low poor NA NA Human Interest Scale NA NA NA NA NA NA Personal tone NA NA NA fair NA NA Action NA NA NA fair NA NA