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A math guy's random thoughts.
A math guy's random thoughts.
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May 1, 2019 at 3:32pm
May 1, 2019 at 3:32pm
This is kind of kewel, although it's another hour spent playing instead of, you know, working. I made a word doodle in the shape of my face using http://wordart.com.
Word Doodle of Max

It's derived from this photo:
Younger Max

Okay, that photo is thirty years old, but it's the only one I've got. I hate having my picture taken.

I used "Meaning in Fiction to create the word list, so it's got some peculiar things in it, like einbahnstrasse.

Anyway, this was fun to do.
February 23, 2019 at 3:05pm
February 23, 2019 at 3:05pm
I've recently spent a couple of days figuring out how to produce maps for SciFi and fantasy worlds using Photoshop. The result was this map:
~~Image ID# 2183563's Content Rating Exceeds Item Content Rating~~ .

For a full-size image with much better detail, see here.  .

Most of this was pretty easy to do, but at least one step is complicated. I thought others might be interested in the process, and I wanted to record the steps here for my own future reference. So, here goes.

The first step is to produce--or find--a line drawing of your map. Being lazy, I started with a line drawing of an existing geographic area, the Aegean Sea. You can find my starting point here.  . The map also appears at the bottom of this post.

The discerning reader will note that my final map uses the Aegean Sea as the land area for my SciFi map. I also rotated it 90 degrees so that the Bosporus--which becomes a peninsula--points downward.

I copied this to Photoshop, rotated it, selected the blue areas on the map, then inverted the selection. Then I created a new layer and filled the new layer with green. The next step is to use the eraser and pen tools to touch it up, producing the final outline I wanted. The end product was the basic outline of the map.
Photoshop Mask

This is the basic "mask layer."

Select the colors and add a new layer under the mask. Fill the new layer with something--it doesn't matter what color. Then use filter/stylize/find edges, which produces a hard outline. Finally, on this layer, use layer properties to add outer glow. For the map above, I used a size of 25 pixels, light blue color, and a hard light. That's the light-colored glow you see around the land mass in the final map.

Create another new layer, this time above the mask layer. Select the mask again, as before, and, in the new layer, change the color selections to a green foreground and a tan background. Then do filter/render/clouds several times until you get a mix of fertile--green--and desert--tan--areas that you like. You can always touch these up later with a fuzzy brush tool, as I did to create desert-like areas east of the mountain range. If you use the mask to select the land area, you can even use the a fuzzy brush to simulate ice caps in this layer. By selecting the land mass first in the mask layer an then using the brush on the topography layer, the ice stays on the land mass and you keep the coastline. (My island is too small to extend to the ice cap--it's about 2/3 the size of Ireland.)

Okay, that's the easy part. Next, I wanted to add mountains. I wanted mine to run down the west side of the island, so I used the lasso tool to create a loop in that location. Next, with select/modify/feather, I feathered the edges of the loop by 25 pixels. Add a new, blank layer and deselect all the other layers. This time, I selected a light gray foreground and an almost black background. Now apply filter/render/clouds. The selected area will have clouds fading to nothing because of the earlier feather. Next, with filter/noise/add noise, add noise, using 3% for the amount, Gaussian, and monochromatic. At this point, it looks fuzzy and speckled.

The next step--remember, we're just building the mountains here--is to add a new channel. So, click on channels, then new. You'll see a new channel, probably called "alpha1", in addition to the color channels. In this new channel, use filter/render/difference clouds to add difference clouds. (Make sure your color selections are still the light gray/black you selected earlier.) Repeat this until you get a mix of light and dark colors in the selection area.

Still in the channel, add noise as before. After adding the noise, go to edit and change the noise level to 50%.

You're now ready to go back to the layer where you made the loop that holds the mountains. It's still there, unchanged from what we did in the alpha channel. Here's where we finally get the mountains. Apply fitler/render/lighting. You might have to fiddle with the lighting some--make it bigger, for example, or less intense. But the important thing is to change the "texture channel" at the bottom of the lighting effects screen to "alpha1," or whatever the name of the new channel was that you created in the prior step.

When you reveal the other layers, you'll get the map I started with.

The end result are the mountains you see in the original map.

This is relatively simple, although I admit there are several steps to get the mountains. It's amazingly difficult to find these directions by just googling. You'll find lots of instructions for more complex processes that, I admit, look a tiny bit better. It's also easy to find Youtube videos that rush through a process in two minutes, which means you have to stop them, take notes, restart, etc. If I want to learn how to tie a butcher's knot for my pork roulade, nothing beats Youtube. But it's not the medium for complex, technical instructions.

Anyway, that's it. Hope this is helpful to me a year from now, the next time I want to do this, and to you, too.
November 25, 2018 at 12:07pm
November 25, 2018 at 12:07pm
I admit it. I'm not so good at grammar.

I subscribe to The Chicago Manual of Style   for exactly that reason. It provides clear answers to almost any grammar question.

You don't have to pay for good grammar advice, though. Most universities have websites devoted to the basics to assist composition students. Many people in the business would agree that one of the best is :The Purdue Owl  . When I am critiquing a story that I think would benefit, I will often link to the relevant page on the Owl. Their discussion of commas, for example is quite good.

I've recently started reading reviews that other people post on WDC as part of participation in Sara♥Jean 's project "R.A.W.R. Public Forum, Rewards for Awareness of Wonderful Reviews. I'm pleased to report that there are dozens of excellent reviewers here on WDC who provide helpful, supportive, and accurate critiques. I knew this was true from the multitude of helpful comments I've gotten on my own work, but it's nice to see this reflected across a broad spectrum of users. Helpful reviews are one of the many features that make WDC so valuable to authors.

Sometimes, though, even a well-intended and otherwise valuable review can be a bit off the mark, which is what inspired this blog.

I have seen more than one review that conflated "passive voice" with "perfect tenses." Not sure what a "perfect" tense is? The trusty Owl has the answer: https://owl.purdue.edu/owl/general_writing/grammar/verb_tenses/index.html

So here's the thing. Sometimes, ever on the lookout for passive verbs, a review will mistake, say, past perfect for passive voice. It's easy to do. I've even caught myself doing it, and I know the difference.

Let's look at an example. I wrote
I have seen more than one review...
I could have written
I saw more than one review...
Both indicate that the action happened in the past.

Both are active: there is a subject--I--a verb, and an object. The mere presence of the helper verb "have" in the first example does not make this a passive sentence.

So, what's the dfference? Of course, the first uses a past-perfect verb, while the second uses past indicative. CMOS 5.133 says
[Past perfect tense] refers to an act, state, or condition that was completed before another specified or implicit past time or past action

In particular, I read these reviews after participating in the R.A.W.R. project and before writing this blog. When I read these reviews answers the implicit question posed in the immediately preceding sentence about what inspired this blog.

In short, past-perfect tense gives more information than the past indicative "saw." It helps to establish the sequence in which events occurred.

The same is true for all the perfect tenses: present-perfect, future-perfect, and past-perfect.

They are not "passive voice." They are not "passive writing." They are grammatically correct writing that conveys information in a precise, compact way.

I know that "had" often appears in lists of words to "never use" in fiction. It's true that generally speaking fewer words are better. It's also true that often the sequence of events doesn't matter. But it's also true that there are occasions when it's appropriate and even more accurate to use one of the "perfect" tenses.

I'm tempted to say that there is no "writing rule" that doesn't have an exception. However, I don't need Boolean algebra to know that would lead to a paradox.

That's a blog for another day.
July 12, 2018 at 10:16am
July 12, 2018 at 10:16am
I've posted a review of The Man From Earth on my blog.

Banner for Max  

Max Griffin
Please visit my website and blog at

Check out my latest release!
The Hounds of Hollenbeck
Product Type: eBooks
Amazon's Price: Price N/A

June 24, 2018 at 10:14am
June 24, 2018 at 10:14am
One of my writing groups recently discussed how to plot. Wouldn't it be awesome if there were a magic formula on how to plot? Better yet, how about a magic formula on how to write a novel? There's lots of books out there on exactly this topic.

But then I realized something.

There is exactly one correct way to write: the way that works for you.

Lawrence Block, the Edgar award-winning novelist, once surveyed a score of best-selling authors regarding their method. Each one was certain they had discovered the one and only route to success.

Here's the thing, though. There was no consistency in any of the survey answers.

Some authors insisted on detailed plots. Some, like Block, wrote entirely seat-of-the-pants, with zero idea where the story was headed. Some wrote spare first drafts and then expanded them. Some wrote first drafts double the length of the final novel, and then cut. Some kept detailed character files, some did nothing of the sort.

Each author had found their own, unique, way to organize their writing.

Now, it's useful to read about how other authors do things. I've learned amazing things that way. I've learned about the "middle muddle," about the three act play structure, about plot beats, about "scene and sequel," and many other useful concepts. All of that influences what happens when I sit at the keyboard and start to write. But Frank Sinatra may as well be crooning in the background when I start to type: I have to do it my way, whatever that is.

That's not say that there aren't tried-and-true elements of craft all authors should know and practice. Most of my reviews--of myself and others--focus on some simple elements of craft deduced from the theory of the "fictional dream." We'd be idiots to have not learned from centuries of experience of other authors. There's a *reason* no one uses omniscient narrators any more, and it's more than just the fanciful whims of style. There's a *reason* why "murmured" is better than "said softly," and that one should be obvious by just stating the two ways of saying it. There's a reason to avoid info-dumps and head hopping. But I digress.

There's a difference between craft and creativity. Anyone who can write sentences can learn the former. It's hard, tedious work, but it's just an acquired skill. We learn craft because it will make what we write more effective.

Creativity, on the other hand, comes from deep within the soul. You can't learn creativity. When you're an author, a real author, you write because it's impossible not to write. It's an obsession that won't go away unless you feed it. Don't look for a formula on how to do be creative. There isn't one.

It's like Hemingway said, “There is nothing to writing. All you do is sit down at a typewriter and bleed.”

November 20, 2017 at 6:25pm
November 20, 2017 at 6:25pm
My current work in progress, "Timekeepers is about time travel. Like most time travel fiction, it's got time travelers jumping into various historical epochs and doing stuff. But there's some interesting corollaries to this kind of fictional technology.

Think about it. My protagonists jump about in time, from 2018, to 1066, to a million years ago in the Pleistocene. But, while their "timepieces" displace them in time, they always wind up on earth. Nothing remarkable, right? That happens in all the time in this kind of fiction, from H.G. Wells to the ones on TV just last season.

Here's the thing, though. Everything moves.

The solar system is moving in an orbit about the galactic core. In fact, it's moving pretty fast: about 515,000 miles per hour. This means that from 1066 to 2018, the solar system has moved 0.73 light years. Thus, when our time travelers "jump" from 2018 to 1066, they not only "instantly" travel in time, in order to stay "on earth," they must also "instantly" travel that same distance in space, 0.73 light years. Of course, what "instantly" means in a universe of time travel is a question in and of itself. On the other hand, relativity pretty much erases the notion of simultaneity, so time travel or not, we know time doesn't follow intuitive rules.

It gets worse. Our characters "jump" 1.4 mega-years back to the Pleistocene but stay on earth. When they do this, they have also traveled over a thousand light years.

The inevitable conclusion is that a time machine is also a faster-than-light drive. Of course, we all know it's impossible to travel faster than light, so the logical conclusion is that time travel is also impossible.

On the other hand, we all enjoy stories that include faster-than-light drives, so impossibility isn't really a problem with fiction. Except fiction, unlike the real world, has to at least make sense.

So there's an issue for a author writing about time travel. It seems incumbent to find an "explanation" for staying on earth's "world-line" when "jumping" in time. The explanation needs to be plausible, although it can't be "scientifically accurate" since time travel itself is surely impossible. My idea for this novel is that they are traveling in a gravity well that's carving out a path in space-time. It's not implausible that the least-energy path back to 1066 is along this path. So, when my time travelers "jump," they are following the most efficient path in terms of energy expenditure to the past carved out by Earth.

Do I believe in that explanation? Well, no. But I don't believe in time travel either. This at least passes the sniff test, if you don't think about it too much.

The other paradox with time travel involves "changing the past" and erasing the future. That's a common plot element in time travel fiction, and it's in my novel, too. But a plot turning point in my novel is what I think is a new idea about what "really" happens if someone "changes" the outcome of one of history's turning points. The idea is tied to some real ideas in physics that arise in quantum mechanics.

Since it's part of the climax to the novel, you'll have to read the my book to learn about that.
October 13, 2017 at 12:52pm
October 13, 2017 at 12:52pm
Some Thoughts on In-Depth Peer Reviewing

We've all gotten drive-by reviews. They tend to be short and full of adjectives. Sometimes the adjectives gush with praise. These reviews are at least an ego-boost to receive. Other times, the adjectives pierce with condemnation. These hyper-critical reviews can send even experienced authors off the deep end of depression. The emotional reactions make it easy to think of these as "good" and "bad" reviews. There's some truth to that: certainly, a "good" review encourages the author and a "bad" review does the opposite. From that single perspective, the "good" and "bad" labels are probably accurate.

However, the point of this essay is that neither type of drive-by review is useful: they do nothing to help the author craft better fiction.

Reviews on Writing.Com, even those on reviewing in-and-outs like "The Review Spot, are peer reviews.. They are one author, interacting with another author, about a piece of writing. One goal of a peer review is to start a conversation between these two authors. That conversation helps both the author and the reviewer craft better stories. That's the whole point of peer reviewing.

This essay gives some more-or-less random thoughts on what goes into a helpful peer review.

How to write a helpful peer review

A helpful review needs to make specific comments about craft--about the words on the page, the characters, and the story. In particular, a helpful review:

Makes judgements, both positive and negative;
Provides specific reasons for the judgements it makes;
Gives specific examples from the author's text to support the judgements it makes;
Makes specific suggestions for revision where appropriate;
Gives specific praise for what the author has done well;
Provides encouragement for the author's creativity and artistic impulse.

A helpful review that follows the above suggestions is balanced: it has both positive and negative elements. A helpful review is reasoned: it explains why some feature works or why the reviewer thinks it needs revision. A helpful review is specific: it gives particular examples from the author's text and makes specific suggestions for revision. Finally, a helpful review is respectful: it acknowledges the author's creativity and encourages the artistic impulse.

What to include in a helpful peer review

This is a little harder, since every author brings a different artistic perspective to writing, and hence also to reviewing. Still, there are some basic things like grammar or point-of-view that might be common to all reviews. If you've gotten a review from me, you probably know I have a fetish about adverbs. I use leads to provide structure and to remind me to do certain things such as praise what the author has done well. Each reviewer, then, will have their own "what to include" list. I'll share my own admittedly idiosyncratic list, along with why something is on the list and what I look for.

What I liked best. I start here, partly to launch the review by reinforcing something I liked about the piece I just read. It's my reminder to tell the author what they've done well. And, yes, every piece I review has something I can praise. On the rare occasions where there's not, I don't provide a review.

Opening paragraph. This is critical to any fiction. Did it orient the reader? Does it establish point-of-view? Does it draw the reader into the fictional world? Does it start with action?

Style and Voice. Is the voice first person or third person? If the latter, is it omniscient or third person limited? Why is omniscient deprecated in modern fiction? "Style" is the author's voice, which is different from the point-of-view. Many authors have a distinctive voice that shines through their prose.

Vonnegut's admonition that every sentence should advance character or plot, and preferably both has a place here. So does advice against info-dumps. Elmore Leonard said he left out the parts readers skip--that might be relevant, too.

Characters. Characters need to have goals. The goals need to matter--those are the stakes. Something has to stand in the way of achieving the goal--often but not always an oppositional person. Goals, stakes, and opposition are at the heart of both plot and tension, so these are important in almost any work of fiction.

Characters need to be authentic. Readers need to believe in their actions, goals, and emotions.

Readers need to care about your characters. They don't have to like them, but they have to care enough about their goals to keep the pages turning.

Plot. There's no single idea that animates my comments on plot, although the three-act-play structure is close--see "Finding Plot. Chekov's gun-over-the-mantle comment is sometimes also relevant.

Setting. This is certainly part of orienting the reader. It's also staging--keeping track of where the characters are at in the fictional world and in relation to each other. Finally, the setting can often reveal character and plot--see Vonnegut above.

Hook. If I'm reading a chapter, it needs to end with a hook--something to keep the pages turning. I like this blog   on hooks.

Referencing. This is properly part of scene setting, but much of what I read is SciFi or Fantasy where referencing the specific features of the fictional world is important. For fantasy in particular, the dreaded info-dump comment often appears here. This is also important for stories set in another historical period or for stories set in a culture unfamiliar to the reader.

Grammar. My adverb fetish rears its head here.

The Purdue Owl  , the writing site at Purdue University, has the best set of free resources I know for grammar rules. For serious authors, The Chicago Manual of Style   is the definitive resource, but it's only available to paid subscribers.

Just my opinion.
I'll often include a comment here about the "fictional dream," since that can inform the final section which has line-by-line comments. I'll often summarize what I see as strengths and possible tweaks noted earlier in the review. I try to always thank the author for sharing their story or chapter and to tell them--truthfully!--that I enjoyed it.

Line-by-Line remarks. This is where I pick out specific things that I flagged while reading, either because I liked them or because I thought they were candidates for revision. Often these are the specific examples that support more general comments made in response to the earlier leads. Note I do NOT copy the entire story or chapter here--just specific places as examples to support earlier comments or to make new ones about craft. Often the most detailed and, I think, useful parts of the review are here.

I always close by reminding the author that I'm just another author, like them, and they are the only ones who know what's best for their work.

That's it, my $0.02 worth on in-depth, peer reviewing. I hope you find this helpful!


Max Griffin
Please visit my website and blog at

Check out my latest release!
The Hounds of Hollenbeck
Product Type: eBooks
Amazon's Price: Price N/A

August 22, 2017 at 5:09pm
August 22, 2017 at 5:09pm
Totality 2017

We went to see the eclipse and found a community.

We travelled 350 miles from our home in Tulsa to Fairmont, Nebraska to witness the solar eclipse. Despite 70% cloud cover, at the time of totality the sun was in patch of blue sky, giving a clear view of the event. It was indeed an awesome sight.

This short diary isn’t about that, though. It’s about our experience in the village of Fairmont.

First, the community had spent months planning for the event. They anticipated a rush of outsiders arriving and, with planning and foresight, welcomed us to their small town. There were viewing areas in two local parks, a fly-in to the local airstrip, and many community volunteers serving sandwiches, water, and other sundries to the visitors. The community had rented porta-pies for their guests. The library even had a supply of viewing glasses. along with eclipse information.

Fairmont welcomed us with open arms.

We found a place to park on a street near downtown where a family from Texas had set up a telescope for viewing. As I got out our car, I heard them asking if anyone had an extra set of viewing glasses. As it happened, the place I’d purchased ours sold them in packets of five, so I had three spares. I gave one of them to the telescope guys, which they used to jury-rig a filter for one of their cell phones. They were sharing their telescope with anyone who wanted to look—this was about noon, when the moon already occluded about 25% of the solar disk.

The local AmVets was nearby, so I strolled down there to get some bottled water. I overheard a distressed man who was looking for viewing glasses for himself and his daughter. It seems the library, despite their preparations, had run out. I offered our remaining two spares to them. They seemed thunderstruck and kept insisting on paying me for them. I asked, “Why would I want that?” After all, they were (a) inexpensive; (b) I didn’t need them; and (c) they’d be worthless in about an hour in any case. He eventually agreed that just a handshake was enough payment.

When totality came, the telescope guys took the filter off their scope and placed their cell phone next to the eyepiece to take stunning pictures. They even did the same for bystanders—they took the picture on this diary using my cell phone. Bear in mind, they took time to share in this way with strangers during the all-too-brief 150 seconds of totality.

When it was over, we thanked the telescope guys again for their generosity. They, too, shook our hands and wished us a safe trip home. We did the same for them—they had travelled from Texas.

In this small, doubtless conservative, Nebraska village, we found community and common purpose. The eclipse brought us together.

If something inanimate can bring us together, I was left to ponder why it is so hard to come together on the many challenges facing our nation. But that’s not for this diary. Instead, I’m grateful to have, for one day, found so much good will in a community of strangers.

Cross-posted from DailyKos  

Max Griffin
Please visit my website and blog at

Check out my latest release!
The Hounds of Hollenbeck
Product Type: eBooks
Amazon's Price: Price N/A

June 3, 2017 at 2:11pm
June 3, 2017 at 2:11pm
Another--of a seemingly infinite list--of Microsoft Word annoyances. When I copy formatted text from WDC to Word, MS helpfully inserts a pink background that is close to impossible to remove. I've found the secret.

Addendum. 6/4/2017. If you Google this, you'll find dozens of links to this problem, but almost none with the solution below. Sometimes the background is a different color--grey, blue, etc. But it's always impossible to remove using the "normal" tools in Word.

I'm putting this in a blog so (a) I can find it again; and (b) because it's bound to help others.

I routinely edit my documents here on WDC, using WritingML to format the documents. For a variety of reasons, I want to save BOTH the formatted version and the text version with WritingML to my dropbox fiction folder.

Saving the text document with the WritingML code is no problem.

When I save the formatted version, though, Word helpfully puts a nice pink background on all the text. Ordinarily, you would think that invoking one of the tools on the ribbon would fix this. For example, there's a "shading" tool. You can use it to set the shading on whatever part of your document you select. Except, of course, it will NOT remove the shading that Microsoft has so helpfully inserted for you.

So, here's what you have to do.

1. Cut and past your document into word. You'll see that lovely pink shading.

2. Select the text in the document.

3. Press SHIFT F1. This brings up a REVEAL FORMATTING code window and is the key step. Buried someplace in the formatting is the troubling SHADING command. Note that if you have centered text or other aligned elements, you might have to selected each part of the document separately. and repeat these steps.

4. Click on the SHADING link the reveal formatting window.

5. You need to select CLEAR NO COLOR in the drop-down for FILL (not PATTERNS!). Then, under apply to, select PARAGRAPH.

6. Repeat step 4, but this time select CLEAR NO COLOR in the drop-down, then select TEXT in the drop-down for "apply to."

Presto, your document is fixed. There's a much easier solution if you want to erase ALL of the formatting of from your copied text, but why do that after you went to the work to put it in.

Why this happens to copied text is beyond me. I use Chrome, but it happens with the Micorsoft browsers, too, and with FIrefox. It happens on MACs and PCs. I've heard it doesn't happen with the Opera browser.

Hope people find this helpful. If someone has a simpler solution, please let me know.


PS If anyone is interested, I've written a Word macro to convert the most common MS formatting to WritingML, so I can go the other way--Word to WritingML.
October 5, 2015 at 9:12pm
October 5, 2015 at 9:12pm
I love getting reviews that make me think.

I got a review of a book chapter this morning that did that. This reviewer told me I used obscure words that would be unfamiliar to readers. Well, I can’t argue with the merits of that advice in general. I love Hemingway in no small part because of his spare style. When an author uses a word that I have to look up, it almost always annoys me. It’s not that I don’t like learning new words–to the contrary. The problem is that looking up a word takes me out of the story. It breaks the fictional dream, which is at the heart of modern fiction.

My first reaction was to run the two tests of readability that come with most word processors: the Flesch grade level and the Flesch-Kincaid reading ease score. My chapter had a Flesch grade level of 4.1 and a reading ease score of 82.5. According to Wikipedia, that grade level score means that a US fourth-grader should be able to read and understand it. The same Wikipedia article says a reading ease score of 90 is easily understood by an eleven-year-old, while one of 70 is easily understood by a thirteen-year-old.

It’s interesting to see how various authors stack up on the readability scales. This blog   actually gives some comparative scores. The Old Man and the Sea, for example, has a grade level of 4 and a readability score of over 90. This means that Hemingway’s masterwork is exceptionally readable: lower grade levels and higher readability scores are good things when it comes to lucidity. Authors like Stephen King, Dan Brown, and John Grisham have grade levels of 6 to 8 and reading scores from 75 to 80. These are all readable authors by any measure. Depending on the passage you choose, other famous authors don’t fare so well. One passage in particular from Proust in particular has a readability score of -515.

This blog isn’t doing so well, either. It has a readability score of 67.3 and a grade level of 7.7. If this were fiction, I’d be looking for ways to make it more readable.

The point is that if you are writing fiction, you probably don’t want your use of language to obscure your meaning. You want your fiction to be readable. You’re not trying to impress your reader with your proclivity for polysyllabic elucidation. Oops. I meant to say, "your tendency to use big words."

Okay, then, back to my thought-provoking reviewer. My scores are roughly the same as King and Grisham, so that must mean my chapter is peachy-keen, right? By the way, "keen"--as in making a high-pitched sound--was one of the words my reviewer objected to. If you think the scores absolve me, think again.

Consider this sentence:
The jark on the spiv’s deed wricked the truth.

This unintelligible sentence has a readability score of 100 and a grade level of zero, so by the above measures it’s more lucid than, say, the children’s book Goodnight Moon, which has a grade level slightly less than 3.

Say, what?

Suppose I had written instead:
The forged seal on the criminal’s deed twisted the truth.

It turns out, this says the same thing as the earlier sentence, except it uses plain English rather than obscure words. It has a grade level of 3.6 and a readability score of 86. It’s also a sentence anyone reading this can likely understand.

So what's going on? Like Sheldon on Big Bang Theory, I like to do the math. If you look at the formulae for the Flesch scales, you'll see that they are based on counting characters per word and words per sentence. In fact, all the scales that mechanically calculate readability do the same kind of thing. What they don't do is decide whether or not your words are obscure. So my first sentence, the one with the jark on the spiv's deed, is short and uses one-syllable words, hence the high readability and low grade level scores. Readability in this case is a deliberate artifact--I constructed a sentence to "falsify" the score.

Now, another way to test readability is have real people read the sentence and see how many know what it says. In fact, you could have fifth graders read it and find out if the "average" --whatever that means--fifth grader understood it. Of course, that kind of real-world test can't be automated and built into your word processor. I think we don't need a test, though, to conclude the first sentence above is unreadable, despite its score to the contrary.

Does this mean that the Flesch scales and all their relatives are useless? No, of course not. In fact, if you compare the results of the Flesch scales with the above real-world test using real people, the results generally have a 90% correlation. That's really quite good, especially for social science results where there are often multiple unmeasured variables. One of those unmeasured variables in this case is how common the words are in the passage being tested. As the above example shows, it's an imperfect measure. Still, for most documents, readability fails more due to long words and complex sentences rather than obscurantism. Thus, the scales do in fact measure something useful. They're just not 100% accurate.

This takes me back to my thought-provoking review. It’s a matter of taste and style whether or not use a particular word. Indeed, Dean Koontz has almost made a trademark of using at least one obscure word per novel--kind of like Alfred Hitchcock’s appearance in all of his films. He does this was a certain insouciance–one of his words–and this is no doubt part of his appeal to his legion fans.

Now, the fact that Dean Koontz does this doesn’t make it "okay" for a beginning author. If I used the wonderful word "insouciance" in an opening paragraph, I’m sure the acquisitions editor would stop reading and toss my manuscript in the reject pile. Koontz, on the other hand, could open with the page 178 of the Tulsa phone book and he’d still get a contract and readers would still buy his book. He’s not only more talented, he’s a best-selling author. The "rules" don’t apply to him: nothing sells like success. Whether it’s an agent, editor, or an ordinary Joe picking a paperback out at the supermarket, Koontz’s solid reputation means that he doesn’t have to prove himself with those first paragraphs. I do.

So how about that verb "keened" that I used? Well, it’s onomatopoetic (there I go again!), so I like it. I’m also pretty convinced it’s not so obscure that people will have to look it up, although I concede it’s not a word most people would use in conversation. Bottom line: I think I’ll keep it, but I’m glad I thought about it.

Cross-posted at http://maxgriffin.net/blog

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