I developed a writing assessment. It’s my attempt to take 20+ years of judgment about what makes tight, logical writing and put it into a form that is easy for others to learn from. Also, for those who like numbers, it boils the quality of a piece of writing down into a metric without being trivial about it.
While it started off as just some screwing around in Python, it’s become a very useful tool for coaching, feedback and evaluation.
The PScore is a measure of how much attention a reader must expend to extract meaning from a piece of writing. It combines a qualitative and a quantitative method to produce a score. The lower this score the ‘better’ the writing is. It is built around a key tenet – The skillful writer makes complicated subjects easy to understand. That is, if you take two writers, writing on the same subject, the one with the lower PScore will be more effective because it will be easier for the reader to get information out of her writing.
QUANTITATIVE — LANGUAGE COMPLEXITY
There are many measures of readability. All of them are basically the same. They evaluate sentence construction by measuring some mixture of the number of words, sentences, syllables and word frequency. I use something very much like the Flesch-Kincaid Reading Ease score to assess the complexity of a piece of writing.
QUALITATIVE — COMPOSITION
Of each piece of writing, I ask three questions.
- Does it start in the right place?
- Does it have a purpose that is immediately apparent to the reader?
- Does reading it make the reader more likely to take the desired action? (see also A 2500 Year Old Tool for Better Messaging
These questions are answered on a scale and combined with the measure of complexity to result in a PScore. For example which one do you think is better?
A (PSCORE =6)
For the last 150 years, the Galactic Empire has pushed the frontiers of weapon technology. Malicious will, plus a limitless Research and Development budget, has resulted in the construction a fully-functional weapon of planet destruction. Grimly named ‘The Death Star,’ this is the most significant strategic issue facing the Rebel Alliance. This paper will explore our options for dealing with his horrible new weapon of oppression.
B (PSCORE =1)
The Death Star is very big and very powerful, but it has a fatal flaw. It won’t be easy to destroy, but it is possible. This document will show you how.*
Many Bothans died to bring you this memo.
I say the second one is better, because it uses less of your attention and mental energy to get the point across. To formalize this idea a bit more: /A piece of writing is a kind of conceptual machine. You put attention into the machine and meaning pops out the other end. But attention is only becoming more expensive. So, if this machine is well-built, it will use as little attention as possible./
A MEASURE OF IMPROVEMENT
To measure the magnitude of improvement possible, I score a sample of writing. Then I rewrite it to be as efficient as possible and score that version as well. Almost all of the time, this is a matter of killing words. hence my free e-book and course called How to Kill a Word)
The difference between the two versions is the room for improvement. I repeat this as the end of the coaching engagement to measure the improvement.
Marketing Copy A (Pscore=11)
Much of a museum’s collection storage is out of the public eye – but that doesn’t make it any less valuable or attractive. Those out-of-sight pieces can benefit from high-density museum shelving, whether operated electronically or by a mechanical assist. Expandable and lockable, they offer protection, easy access and an eminently flexible storage solution. Modular static shelving or museum cabinets are also great solutions to secure your collection.
Pscore = 11
Word Count = 79
Complexity = 115
Composition = 10
Marketing Copy B (Pscore=4)
What you don’t show is as valuable as what you display to the public. High-density museum shelving can help you protect your collection and make the most of your space.
Pscore = 4
Word count = 32
Complexity = 40
Composition = 11
What can you take away from all of this?
The Pscore is my attempt to automate what a great writer does when evaluating writing. Here a few ways to think about making writing better that are baked into the score and almost always correct.
- The fewer words you can get away with, the better.
- Ask the three compositional questions of everything you write:
- Does this start in the right place?
- Does it have a purpose which is immediately apparent to the reader?
- Is it likely to persuade the reader to take action?
- If you really get stuck, you should message me. I’ve spent a lot of time helping people get clear about their writing and messaging.
And, if you want a good exercise, how would you answer the three composition questions for this post?
The Pscore for this post is 17. Here’s some other stats.
Avg words/sentence: 11.96
Avg syllables/word: 1.50
Reading Ease: 67.84
Grade Level: 6.77