Step 1: Setting a Baseline

Before you begin editing your own work, set your baseline: that is, take a snapshot of the metrics of your current draft, so that you can see where and how you change your work as you edit.

There are many online writing tools that will give you an overview of your writing, measure it, and breakdown its readability. These tools typically rely on algorithms or formulas, based on data collected from your writing, to assess its readability. The Flesch-Kincaid Grade Level, for instance, calculates factors like sentence length and syllables to determine readability.

Like any heuristic, readability formulas have limitations. For one, they're almost never developed with academic writers—experts sharing new information with other experts—in mind. At worst, they’re a blunt instrument, built on flawed methods—the belief, for example, that “governmental” is a harder word to read than “bilk,” because “governmental” has four times the number of syllables and three times the number of letters as the shorter word. (“To cheat; to avoid paying,” by the way.)

Similarly, short sentences with short words will receive great readability scores even if they are nonsense. “Mike eats your cat gun now!” is both highly readable and utterly incomprehensible.

For this course, we’ll use, because it helps you understand how your writing compares to the writing of others in your field. This tool moves away from prescriptive judgements of “good” or “bad,” or levels of “readability.” Instead, it enables you to set your own goals for your writing.

Cut and paste your draft into the “Your Text” box in, and then hit “Analyze.” You don't have to include anything in the “Reference” box. Then, take a screenshot of your results, and save them somewhere that you'll be able to find them. Throughout this course, you'll refer to the numbers and graphs from these results to understand how to apply these lessons to your own writing. 

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