Getting Schooled With StoryToolz

keyboard-keysYou may have read Dragonfly president Samantha Enslen’s post on StoryToolz from a few weeks back. The website’s a hotspot for writerly resources, like conflict generators and a cliché buster. Most useful for those of us who aren’t aspiring novelists (at least professionally), however, is StoryToolz’ readability meter.

The tool is like having a hawk-eyed English professor looking over your shoulder as you write.

It corrects you when you overuse the verb “to be” or begin too many sentences with pronouns. It wags its finger at run-on sentences and pesky passive voice. StoryToolz also spits out a subjective reading level of your work using no less than seven indices. For B2B communicators aiming for clear, concise writing, that’s a valuable insight.

Samantha has encouraged Dragonfly writers to add StoryToolz to our respective writing arsenals. I, for one, am hooked. Just as in English classes past, I’ve found myself anticipating the faults the professor, er, computer, will find with my writing. Then I can fix problems before they happen.

I was curious about what StoryToolz would have to say about some of my personal writing. Below are a few paragraphs of a paper I wrote for a class in college.

What is news? When the latest on Kim Kardashian’s sex tape and the merits of a “Twinkie diet” vie equally with uprisings in the Middle East for attention major online media outlets, it seems more appropriate to ask ourselves, what isn’t news? In an age when information on happenings in every corner of the globe is accessible in mere seconds, and anyone with a camera and an Internet connection can be a journalist, the very idea of “news” has changed considerably. Attempting to define the limits of what ought to be considered pornography, Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart once said that while he couldn’t quite pinpoint exactly what pornography was, he’d know it when he saw it. This same indistinctness (coupled, paradoxically, with an implicit understanding) seems to apply to our conception of what does (and doesn’t) count as news.

At its most fundamental level, news is the new—not just the current but also the novel, the unexpected, the heartbreaking and the horrifying. It’s presented to us in a compact form that’s easy to digest—a newspaper article, a television sound bite, a tweet—and plays into our insatiable need to know, to judge and to debate. It captures our penchant for story as we watch events unfold from beginning to end, cheer on our heroes and curse our enemies. Yet it’s more than blockbuster-worthy plots that (most) news sources attempt to bring us—it’s information about the world we live in, that which affects us daily and that which shapes international politics.

How do my scribbles stack up against to StoryToolz’ standards? I got an average grade level of 13.7—not bad for a paper written for academic purposes, but way too high for everyday talk. The next bit of feedback that jumped out was my average sentence length. I averaged 29.2 words per sentence (WPS), with one sentence a whopping 41 words long. That doesn’t bode well for readability. Other red flags were “to be” verbs, noun strings, and sentences begun with pronouns.

Clued in to trouble spots, I set out to revise. I pared down the language. I broke apart run-on sentences. I tossed weak phrases and kept the meaty ones (slashing 53 words in the process). Here’s my paper, StoryTool’d:

What is news? Navigate to a given news site and you’ll find coverage of Middle East uprisings, sure. But more often than not, it’ll be flanked by the latest Kardashian dirt or a video of a cat doing the moonwalk. Maybe we should be asking, what isn’t news? Technology has given news a new meaning. Happenings around the globe are accessible in mere seconds, and anyone with a camera and an Internet connection can now call himself a journalist. Speaking not of news, but of pornography, Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart said that while he couldn’t define exactly what it was, he’d know it when he saw it. Maybe that same fuzziness applies to what counts as news.

News, at its heart, is the new. Not just the current, but also the novel, the unexpected, the heartbreaking, and the horrifying. We consume it in digest form: newspaper articles, TV sound bites, tweets.  News feeds our appetite for knowledge, judgment, and debate. It plays on our love for story as we watch events unfold, cheering on heroes and cursing enemies. Blockbuster-worthy plots aren’t all (most) news sources bring, however. They also convey information about our world, from the local to the global.

Now I’m down to an eighth-grade reading level. That’s not bad. My WPS is 12.8 (a good target), and long sentences are down to just 13 percent. A few stubborn “to be” phrases and passive constructions remain, but it feels like improvement. Glancing back at the original piece, I’m amazed by how bulky it seems.

My English teachers would be proud.


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