Introduction: On Writing
Style and Diction Tools
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Reference Books
Technical Notes
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Introduction: On Writing

If you want to become a better writer, you need to do the following, in order of priority: (1) write a lot, and (2) seek ideas and inspiration, and (3) get the technical details right. This web site is mostly about the third and least important of these points.

It should not be a surprise that to improve your writing you should write a lot. If you want to improve your piano playing, do you really think that you should spend a lot of time looking at piano catalogs? Or reading stories about famous piano players? Or worrying about what terms should be in your first recording contract? No. Writing is a craft like many others, and you've simply got to put in the hours. Don't even think about finding an agent until you've got 100,000 words in your desk drawer!

Inspiration does have a role to play, particularly if it can get you to write more. This is the principle behind National Novel Writing Month. Writing workshops, writing classes, writing groups, writing exericises, writing safaris, they can all help as long they don't become ends in themselves. (Don't ask about how to find a writing safari. Please.)

Lastly, there are the rules of grammar, punctuation, and spelling. You can learn these. You can consult reference books. You can even use software tools to get help - like the ones below!

Style & Diction

This is an interactive section for checking a sample of writing. It is modeled after the ancient Unix utilities style and diction. Enter or copy text into the first box below. The scores to the right give the readability of the text according to various formulas.

The Flesch reading ease score is based on a range of 0-100, with lower values for harder text and higher values for easier text; the other scores show the approximate (US) school grade of the text. Grades 13-16 correspond to college level; grades higher than 16 correspond to graduate school level.

Click the "Submit" button to look for possible problems in the text. (This feature is limited to about 50,000 characters of text.) Words of three or more syllables are underlined. You should check the words or phrases in red to see if they should be re-written according to the suggestion in the brackets.

Click the "Demo" button one, two, or three times to see different samples of text. Check the scores for each sample; do you think the scores match the abilities of students in those grades? The different formulas give different estimates of grade level. Which formula is the most accurate? Click the "Submit" button to look for problems and to see the more complex words underlined.

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Reference Books

Become an excellent writer!
Read these books:

The Elements of Style
The Chicago Manual of Style
Merriam-Webster's Collegiate Dictionary
Roget's International Thesaurus
The New York Times Manual of Style and Usage
A Manual for Writers of Research Papers, Theses, and Dissertations
MLA Handbook for Writers of Research Papers

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Technical Notes

The following are the formulae (in the Java programming language) used to generate the various reading scores:

// Flesch reading ease score
double fres = 206.835 - (1.015 * wordCount) / sentenceCount - (84.6 * syllableCount) / wordCount;

// Automated readability index
double ari = (4.71 * letterNumberCount) / wordCount + (0.5 * wordCount) / sentenceCount -21.43;

// Flesch-Kincaid grade level
double fkgl = (0.39 * wordCount) / sentenceCount + (11.8 * syllableCount) / wordCount - 15.59;

// Coleman-Liau index
double cl = (5.89 * letterNumberCount) / wordCount - (30.0 * sentenceCount) / wordCount - 15.8;

// Gunning fog index
double fog = 0.4 * ( (double)wordCount / sentenceCount + (100.0 * complexCount) / wordCount );

// SMOG index
double smog = Math.sqrt( complexCount * 30.0 / sentenceCount ) + 3.0;

wordCount is the number of words in the text.
sentenceCount is the number of sentences in the text.
syllableCount is the number of syllables in the text.
letterNumberCount is the number of letters and numbers in the text.
complexCount is the number of words of three or more syllables in the text.

You may find other web sites or implementations of style and diction that give different scores for the same text. They may use different formulae that given above, but it is more likely that they use different rules for counting sentences or determining what is a syllable.

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Version 07 June 2012