by Ben Blatt
The last time we played around with sportswriter analytics, we wondered if we could algorithmically determine the author of a column based on his favorite words (we could). For a followup, I decided to look at the readability of different writers. Reading level is a nebulous concept and hard to define precisely, but we have a statistical measure known as the Flesch-Kincaid readability test to give us a rough benchmark. The formula is below:
The output of the test is a single value that can be interpreted as the “grade level” of a piece of writing—i.e. the lowest level at which a writer can be considered accessible. As you can see, the test assigns higher grade scores to writers who have words with lots of syllables and sentences with lots of words. It’s imperfect, but it’s still a good way of assigning a value in an unbiased way.
First, I decided to see how sports writing compared with other sections of the newspaper. I choose the New York Times and compared the reading level of the sports columns to the writing of other sections.
Unsurprisingly, the fields that people follow for fun and that rarely contribute tangibly to society (sports, arts, politics) had the lowest reading level. While I would bet the ranking of sections in other newspapers would be similar, it would be naive to think that the grade levels would be the same for other papers. For example, the New York Post‘s sports section has a Flesch-Kincaid grade level of 7.2.
I performed the test on a variety of sports writers from a variety of publication. Below are the writers I chose; next to the writer’s name is the media outlet from which I took a writing sample.
Looking at this chart, I really don’t see any surprises. Charlie Pierce is known for his smart prose. Whitlock, Leitch, Rovell, Wilbon, and Simmons all bunch together, which makes a rough kind of sense (they’re all popular columnists writing for large, diverse audiences). Tucker Wyatt, a 13-year-old “kid reporter” for Sports Illustrated for Kids, writes at a 7.2 grade level. Sure it would be easy to ridicule him for writing at such a low reading level, but considering he’s probably only in the seventh grade himself and is writing for other kids, that really wouldn’t be fair. Rick Reilly finished out the rankings with a 5.2 grade level.
Before you go drawing any sweeping conclusions, a caveat: The Flesch-Kincaid formula is not perfect. It penalizes writers for using short, punchy sentences and small words. And we’re not talking about the intelligence of a writer (although, for the record, the reading level of my previous HSAC articles checked in at 9.7). We’re talking about the level at which prose is pitched. A writer with a broad following would almost certainly have a lower reading level.
That being said, the lowest reading-level result on any writing sample that I tested came from people I am certain are the dumbest writers on the internet. The folks who left comments at the end of Yahoo! Sports articles wrote at a 3.3 grade level.
Ben Blatt can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.