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May

2007

"The Topicalizer" & Other Tools for Writers (and Bloggers)
Saturday, 19 May 2007 14:24
by Jimmy Montague

So far as I'm aware, the first popular writer to point out absurdities inherent in using statistics to assay style in prose was E.B. White, who (some may still recall) was himself a stylist of note. It happened many moons ago, on a dark and stormy night, once upon a time when he was still at The New Yorker.

Somebody sent to White for his evaluation a statistical gizmo, which, its inventor(s) claimed, could accurately assess the "readability" of any text written in English. Being the sort of genius he was, White immediately put the invention to work in a number of amusing ways and wrote a short, uproarious essay about the gizmo’s performance. As his killing stroke, White used the thing to gauge the readability of the promotional puffery that the gizmo’s inventor(s) had written and sent along with it. Trust me: the result did not flatter.1

All of that comes to mind because on April 19 I received a newsletter from Mr. Rob Kall, who edits OpEdNews on the World Wide Web. Among any number of other things, Mr. Kall seems all fizzed up about a gizmo called The Topicalizer.

Visitors at www.topicalizer.com can paste a text of any length into a tiny window, then click a button labeled “topicalize it!” and view the result. The Topicalizer analyzes the text you gave it and spits out a variety of statistical information about that text. Results include numerical scores from three different measures of readability: the Gunning Fog Index, the Automated Readability Index, and the Coleman-Liau Index.

Kall's newsletter suggests that some of the writers who contribute to OpEdNews might find The Topicalizer useful as a tool with which to improve their writing. No doubt. Still – I thought I’d try E.B. White’s idea and run a few tests just to see what I could see.

I started by compiling sample texts from works by successful writers. I used passages from Dan Brown, The Da Vinci Code; Raymond Chandler, The Long Goodbye; Charles Dickens Barnaby Rudge; Robert Graves I, Claudius; George Orwell, Animal Farm; Tom Robbins, Villa Incognito; and Mark Twain, Tom Sawyer Abroad. I chose those books because they are all works of fiction and they are handy on my shelf. I scanned a couple of pages from each book into my computer and, after correcting errors introduced by imperfect character-recognition software, saved each passage as a text file. Then I used The Topicalizer to assay the readability of each sample text.


Results are posted in the table below. Note that low scores are supposedly more readable. Bearing that in mind, one sees that The Topicalizer thinks Dickens is the least readable of the authors tested and Raymond Chandler is most readable.



I, too, like Raymond Chandler, though I never would have picked him over George Orwell. That's not because I'm literarily challenged (Well, maybe I am literarily challenged.) but because, as we shall see, the old saw is literally true: "Beauty is in the eye of the beholder."

I next converted one of my short stories to a text file and fed it to The Topicalizer. I thought it would be fun to compare my own writing to the prose of the greats. Looking at the table, you may be surprised as I was to learn that my Gunning-Fog, my Auto-Read, and my Average readability scores are better than any writer tested except Chandler.

Being an egomaniac (All writers are egomaniacs.) I immediately wrote to notify several major publishers and the Pulitzer Prize Board. Before posting those letters, however, I felt I should run one more check on The Topicalizer. So I fed the gizmo 500 words of nonsense just to see what would happen. The result is here:



So it is that now, instead of submitting my fiction to the Pulitzer Board, I console myself with the thought that I won't have to hire an investment counselor or pack for a book-signing tour any time soon. The dead authors will be rolling in their graves. Tom Robbins and Dan Brown ought to get drunk. Somebody should write and tell them so.

Users should know that statistical measures of "readability" don't really measure readability. What they measure is terseness – pithiness, if you will. Another way to put it is that statistical readability indexes like short. Short paragraphs built of short sentences that feature short phrases made of short words generally show good in readability indexes no matter what sort of slop the words convey. Another fact is that readability indexes prefer active voice to passive voice because it is generally agreed (correctly, I believe) that readers find active voice less tiring. "The truck hit Dick" is better than "Dick was hit by the truck."

By way of illustration: The only thing I found laying around here that The Topicalizer finds more readable than Raymond Chandler is a sample text I built of snippets from various Dick and Jane books. If you read the sample, notice the short words and sentences and paragraphs, and note that it contains no passive voice whatever. Then see how low it scores:

If you're new to this sort of stuff, you might not know that proprietary word processors feature some nifty statistical toys. My personal favorite is the Grammatik tool in WordPerfect. I like it because it’s both powerful and flexible. Using Grammatik, I can compare my work statistically to my choice of a Hemingway short story, to the 1040 EZ tax instructions, to the Gettysburg Address, or I can plug in any other document and measure my work against that. I can even choose which stylebook the program uses to mark up my work. Grammatik measures readability (via the Flesch-Kincaid "grade-level" yardstick), use of passive voice, and a number of other things.

Fledgling writers might also want to know that I think Mr. Kall is right, up to a point. If diarrhea of the keyboard is a problem for you and if you've taste and sense enough to realize that, then statistical tools applied with a mean eye can sharpen your expression nicely. While you use them remember that misused tools are sometimes called murder weapons.

One truth about good writing is that some of it is almost too good. A master essayist like George Orwell or E.B. White, for example, can lead readers through a complex, multifaceted analogy filled with arcane tricks of rhetoric, elegant turns of phrase and subtle logic to a conclusion of crystalline common sense that hits like a nine-pound hammer. Your typical reader, knocked silly by the blow, is apt to think it's all very simple. In fact such writing is anything but simple, as critic Christopher Lehman-Haupt wrote of White back in 1977:

"With his relaxed serendipitous technique of seeming to stumble on his subject by way of the back door, he lends you confidence that you don't really have to know much about a thing to write about it intelligently; you need only possess the skill to write, along with a lot of sanity. Thus, if you've got the hang of it, you can arrive at the subject of disarmament by way of Mary Martin's furniture, or at the prospects of American democracy by the route of a dachshund named Fred.

"Of course, it's only an illusion that Mr. White gets by alone on skill and sanity. He happens to know a great deal about a lot of things – about birds and boats and literature, and, best of all, about how silly it would be to worry about the strictures against anthropomorphism and the pathetic fallacy that children's-book librarians and French new-wave novelists tried to impress upon us in the 60's."

Those able to read between the lines will see that Lehman-Haupt nailed it precisely: Good writing springs almost entirely from a lot of things that have nothing to do with statistical analysis or any other tools. Most such things are immeasurable for being intangible and there is no help for the lack of them.

Every year our huge publishing industry spews forth an array of "authorship software" and hundreds, thousands of self-help books on composition and marketing, each of them touted as a surefire tool with which wannabe authors can "overcome writer's block," compose a bestselling novel and/or get rich quick as a freelance writer. In cities big and small all over America, hundreds of "writers" of whom we've somehow never heard teach thousands of seminars on effective writing yearly (Five nights only $100! Guaranteed results!).

Most all of that is crap. If you're a wannabe author who doesn't believe it's crap, then buy all of the software and the books. Attend every seminar. Join writers groups at bookstores. Go to college. Spend all your money and when you've done you'll find you're left with a keyboard and a blank screen and none of the junk you paid money for will help you in the least. The most valuable assets any writer can own are skill as a critical reader and raw talent, neither of which costs so much as a dime.2

If you aspire to epic poetry or screenplays or journalism or whatever, you'll succeed as a writer only if you lovingly marry your skill and your talent to a lonely rigor of hard work and scholarship. E.B. White, Charles Dickens and other greats would be quick to agree: There is no other way.

- - - -

1 At this distance in time I don’t remember if the inventor of White's gizmo was named Flesch, or Kincaid, or Gunning. All that sticks in my head is that the inventor(s) had some sort of white-collar job(s) at General Motors. For some reason I no longer have White’s essay, and I’m too lazy to drive to town and dig it up. If you don’t believe me, do your own damned research.

2 See my essay on freelance writers here.

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Winter Patriot said:

Winter Patriot
Great Piece!!
Thanks, Jimmy. This is another good one!
 
May 20, 2007 | url
Votes: +0

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