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Fun With The Reading Comprehension Algorithm!

October 13, 2014
(image via wikimedia)

He’s having fun, but since he’s an introverted writer, you can’t tell he’s having fun.  (image via wikimedia)

When I was in college (decades ago), one of my classes did an activity where we students wrote whatever we wanted, and then did a word count, syllable count, (and a bunch of other counts), and finally determined the sophistication level of our writing. At the time, I was proud because I was rated as the highest-level writer in my class.  Looking back, I laugh because I was probably just being a pretentious bastard whenever I wrote.

Now there’s a reading comprehension algorithm that grades presidential speeches by doing (kind of) the same thing.  It’s a bit controversial because President Obama’s speeches have been rated as only “slightly more sophisticated” than President George Bush’s.  President Obama is supposed to be a lot smarter and sophisticated than President Bush (at least a lot of Obama supporters made this claim), so it has to hurt that his speeches are comparable to Bush’s.

WARNING!! The following section is not meant to provoke a political discussion.  Any attempt to inject a serious political fight will be met with mockery. (image via wikimedia)

WARNING!! The following section is not meant to provoke a political discussion. Any attempt at a serious political fight will be met with sarcasm and mockery. (image via wikimedia)

It’s almost not fair to judge a president by his speeches because they use speech writers now.  However, presidents also write memoirs, sometimes even before becoming president.  A few years ago when Decision Points by former President George Bush came out, I read it just to see what his writing style was like.  At the time, critics were also suggesting that President Obama (before he became president) hadn’t really written Dreams from my Father.  I compared the two memoirs to see if either or both presidents wrote their own stuff.  See what you think.

First is a short excerpt from Decision Points by George Bush, from the first page of Chapter 1:

      “I have a habitual personality.  I smoked cigarettes for about nine years, starting in college.  I quit smoking by dipping snuff.  I quit that by chewing long-leaf tobacco.  Eventually I got down to cigars.”  

That’s not very sophisticated.   It probably wouldn’t be rated very high on a reading comprehension algorithm. On the other hand, I’m pretty sure that President Bush is the true author of Decision Points.

Next is a short excerpt from Dreams from My Father, from the first page of Chapter 1:

     “I was living in New York at the time, on Ninety-fourth between Second and First, part of that unnamed, shifting border between East Harlem and the rest of Manhattan.  It was an uninviting block, treeless and barren, lined with soot-colored walk-ups that cast heavy shadows for most of the day.  The apartment was small, with slanting floors and irregular heat and a buzzer downstairs that didn’t work, so that visitors had to call ahead from a pay phone at the corner gas station, where a black Doberman the size of a wolf paced through the night in vigilant patrol, its jaws clamped around an empty beer bottle.”

That’s a nice paragraph.  I’m pretty sure President Obama’s excerpt would rate higher on the algorithm.  But… did President Obama really write the excerpt?

Despite my tendency to ignore most (but not all) criticisms of the president, this excerpt didn’t sound like the President Obama that I hear (or try to avoid hearing).  The language in the excerpt is more flowery than the expressions he uses when he speaks extemporaneously.  Maybe, just maybe, Barack Obama DID have a ghostwriter for his memoir, just as his critics have asserted.   Perhaps the anti-Obama conspiracy theorists were on to something!

Finally, I realized what the problem was.  The editors probably made a slight change to Obama’s original text that completely altered his voice.  Here is what the excerpt might have looked like before the editors changed it:

     “Uh, let me be clear.  I was living in New York at the time, on Ninety-fourth between Second and First, part of that unnamed… uuuuh… shifting border between East Harlem and the rest of Manhattan.  Let me be frank… it was an uninviting block, treeless and barren… uuuh… lined with soot-colored walk-ups that cast heavy shadows for most of the day.  The apartment was small… uuuh… with slanting floors and irregular heat and a buzzer downstairs that didn’t work… uuuh… so that visitors had to call ahead from a pay phone at the corner gas station, where… let me be clear… a black Doberman the size of a wolf paced through the night in vigilant patrol, its jaws clamped around.. uh… an empty beer bottle.”

Okay, now that sounds like the President Obama I try to tune out every day. Sorry, conspiracy theorists, but I believe President Obama actually wrote his own memoir.

I’d like to see this reading comprehension algorithm used on real authors instead of presidential speech writers.  How does a best-seller compare to a novel that wins a Pulitzer Prize?  How does Moby Dick (ha ha!) compare to The Adventures of Tom Sawyer? How does A Time To Kill compare to To Kill A Mockingbird?  How does a novel written by James Patterson compare to a novel written by one of James Patterson’s co-authors?  How do James Patterson’s co-authors compare with each other?

To me, that would be a lot more interesting and fun than comparing presidential memoirs.  And comparing presidential memoirs was a blast!

*****

What do you think?  Does this reading comprehension algorithm really mean anything?  What novels or authors would you like to see compared?  Do you believe any politicians have written their own memoirs?   Do you think writing is fun?  If it’s fun, can other people tell that you’re having fun when you write?

14 Comments
  1. It would be interesting to go through various literature and see what their readability is (I’m sure someone has done it already though). I’m sure James Joyce’s books would be about a Grade 30. Just out of curiosity, I put my current novel through the readability stats feature on MS Words and it came out as Grade 4 on the Flesh-Kincaid readability test. Which is pretty low, but since it’s a middle grade/YA book, that’s pretty good.

    • You should also put your next book on Amazon so that I can buy it. I’m not kidding… please put your book on Amazon.

      • Wow, thanks. Hopefully it will be there eventually. I’m looking for an agent right now. Maybe I’ll self-publish it if that fails. I’ll let you know.

  2. If it grades Obama’s speeches only slightly better then w, then there is something wrong in the math.

    • Who are you going to believe, your own eyes and ears, or the Reading Comprehension Algorithm? The Reading Comprehension Algorithm never lies (or at least it says it never does)!

  3. I think that 1) neither of these people wrote their own memoir without outside help, because famous people almost always have ghostwriters for that sort of thing, and 2) people do speak differently from how they write.

    I hate reading comprehension algorithm things — they invariably tell me that I’m doing something WRONG because I occasionally use words that are “too big” for “real people” to be reading. (Grammarly told me that “familiar” and “vegetable” are too long and that I should replace them with shorter words — in a work of fiction not aimed at minors. *shakes head*)

    • If that’s the case, then Grammarly needs to shorten its name to attract more “real people.”

      Besides, my writing instructors often told me to avoid using words that end with “-ly.”

  4. nicksaid permalink

    Man, your blog is awesome, but with respect to editing: I can’t help but think “Looking back, I laugh because I was probably a pretentious bastard.” I might…uh…tend to agree with you! (I’m talking about your point, not your writing).

  5. When I write I work hard at matching the rhythm of the language to the pace of the action. A love scene is going to be slower and more descriptive, with longer sentences and longer paragraphs, while a fight scene is going to be written with short choppy sentences and a minimum of description. Consequently, how my work scores on those algorithms is entirely dependent on what sort of scene I feed into the program.

  6. Alex permalink

    I’m about 25-years-old. When I was in grade school and junior high, we took a computerized test that determined are our reading level. I recall placing in a 10-12 grade level each year I took it, meaning my comprehension was better than most of my peers. I’m not sure it meant anything other than an ego boost.

    The funny thing about your Obama post comparison is that, that particular book comes up in discussion each time when ghostwriters come up when discussing books and their true writers. In fact, recently there was a huge sidelining of a thread on Reddit about Dreams from My Father.

  7. Obama’s writing is like his speeches. Verbose, a lot of adjectives, all going no where. George W. tells about a personal habit and how it quit it, not enough adjectives and description.
    If you need to ask now To Kill A Mockingbird compare to A Time to Kill, …

  8. Maybe I’ve been doing it wrong, but I always try to lower my readability score, just to make my writing more understandable.

  9. I’m really into epic fantasy, and I’d like to see my favorite authors compared. Granted, I have an idea who would rate higher, but it would be nice to see mathematically.

  10. Wow! Am thrilled but, is it really true because I believe Obama is a great author of words.

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