Writing Tips by Gary Speer

Tips for writers, musing about writing and life

What’s your ‘fog index’ — and how does that matter in your writing?

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I haven’t heard or used the term “fog index” in a number of years. I don’t know whether editors, writing coaches, teachers, or others use the feature anymore or not.

When I first started writing professionally about 190 years ago — okay, perhaps that’s a bit of an exaggeration — my first editor introduced me to the fog index concept. Technically, “fog index” is a method of measuring analyzing written material to see how easy it is to read and understand. I found a fog index web page which explains it in great detail, should you want to use it in your own writing. I highly recommend you go to that web page and learn enough about fog index to test some of your writing with it.

In a nutshell, using short sentences words of less than three syllables gives you a good fog index. Longer sentences of multi-syllabic words gives you a “higher” or worse fog index. All of this hinges on the audience you’re writing for, but in general you should shoot for a seven or eight fog index.

When I think of fog index, I remember an incident with my nephew and his father (my brother-in-law by marriage). When my nephew was about four years old, he accidentally locked himself in the bathroom at my wife’s parents’ home. (Sidebar: My daughter, who was about a year older, tells me SHE actually showed him how to work the lock and egged him into locking the door.) His father knelt down to keyhole level and patiently spoke with his sobbing son. “Rotate the lever, Nathan,” was what he kept telling the boy repeatedly.

Rotate the lever?? Why not simply, “Turn that little knob, Nathan.” It would seem “turn” would be less “foggy” and more understandable to a young child than “rotate.” (Another sidebar: Nathan went on to become a brilliant engineer. Maybe “rotate” wasn’t as big an issue as I thought at the time.)

So, the easiest way to improve your “fog” index would be using simpler, shorter words. Don’t say elliptical if oval will do.

Take a look at some samples of your writing and use the fog index formula on them. At the very least, it will help you become aware of word choices and sentence structure. It may improve your writing.
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