The better we write, the more successful we and our organizations are likely to be.
Corporate Voice, $120, from Scandinavian PC Systems in Rockville, (800) 288-SCAN, is software designed to help individuals and companies produce better writing. It runs on IBM and compatible personal computers.
The program works by comparing newly written material against several built-in models of writing style or custom styles that you add. It should not be confused with a grammar checker, and Corporate Voice doesn't pay any attention to grammar or spelling.
Writers may rebel at the thought, but program designer Roland Larson has reduced the concept of writing style to pure mathematical formulas, building on the old and accepted equations of Rudolph Flesch and J. Peter Kincaid. They were responsible for the Flesch Reading Ease Index and Flesch-Kincaid Index, respectively, which are used by some federal and state government agencies to grade the ease or difficulty of understanding their documents.
This column, for instance, rates a 60.4 on the Flesch Reading Ease Index and 8.7 on the Flesch-Kincaid Index, both indicating that this column is difficult to read. But that information alone is not very beneficial in telling me what I need to do to improve.
Corporate Voice made more useful judgments about this article:
"Text's focal point is very favorably located."
"Text has a broad spread on the Style diagram. Very Good!"
"There are no complicated sentences in the text. Simple and easy to read!"
"You can improve your text's readability if you: write even more sentences containing only short words; reduce the number of 'complicated' sentences; try to use more simple, ordinary words."
The heart of Corporate Voice is a graphic depiction of a document's complexity. What you do see is basically a scatter diagram in which the number of words in sentences are plotted against what the program calls excess syllables. All syllables in excess of one per word are considered excess for charting purposes. Short sentences with short words are depicted as points at the lower left of the screen. As sentence length goes up, the marks move to the right, and as words get longer, they move toward the top of the chart.
Every sentence is plotted on the chart with a dot. The sentence you just read has 10 words, three of which are two syllables long. So its dot will show up at the intersection of 10 across on the horizontal length scale and three up on the vertical excess syllable scale.
You see the stair-step outlines of the style envelope on your screen that shows the outer limits of sentence length and multi-syllable complexity for the style model you have chosen. What the developers call a focal point is the cumulative average of sentence length and excess syllables, depicted by an asterisk on the chart. It should be near the center of the style envelope. You can instantly see if any of your sentences are out of bounds.
Corporate Voice comes with a choice of styles to model your writing after, from Louis L'Amour to Ian Fleming to computer writer John C. Dvorak's PC Crash Course and Survival Guide to a government report.
Not surprisingly, this article scored 94 percent to 99 percent compatible with style models derived from Dvorak's book, general purpose articles, magazine articles, technical writing and news stories. It had too many complex words and sentences for good matches with Ian Fleming, John Gardner and Louis L'Amour. The scores were 85 percent, 78 percent and 75 percent.
The strength of the program, however, lies in your ability to create your own style models to follow. I easily created one by having it read a collection of my previous columns. If I should get too wordy or too technical in a future article, Corporate Voice will quickly show me where I have gone astray.
The program designers suggest that organizations create style models from the works of their best writers. They suggest using a group of documents totaling at least 20,000 words (about 50 single-spaced pages) but say that twice that is even better.
The only caution is to make sure that all the documents are comparable when you make a style. Don't mix your sales letters to clients with the text of the annual report or the pleadings in a patent suit. Instead make separate style models out of each of those categories if you like.
If you are not particularly proud of any of your writings and covet those of a competitor, use the competitor's works for a model.
Will such a program make anyone a better writer? Just rereading what you have written before it is submitted goes a long way toward improvement, and Corporate Voice helps you do that by flagging problem sentences and highlighting words that could be simplified.
Richard O'Reilly designs microcomputer applications for the Los Angeles Times. Write to Richard O'Reilly, Los Angeles Times, Times Mirror Square, Los Angeles, Calif. 90053.