Two weeks after starting my first job as a technical writer, my boss called me into his office. “Sit down,” he commanded. Mr. A. owned a reputation as a hard-bitten, ex-military training manual writer.
He immediately started expounding on the necessity of clear communications in our medical instrumentation manuals. Some forty minutes into this monologue he said, “The military has the right approach. There is a precise test for evaluating the ultimate effectiveness of communications. In the Army we call it ‘the fog count.'” He picked up a copy of the first manual draft I had written from his desk and began riffling the pages, a look of deep concern spreading over his face. “Let’s apply the fog count method to this, for example,” he elevated one eyebrow before continuing. “Starting with the first paragraph.”
I started to sputter something about how I felt this introduction with equipment names like gaschromatography, instrumentation and analyses might skew the results just a bit.
He held up a hand like a traffic cop and began to silently lip numbers.
After five minutes and a number of written tabulations on his yellow pad (which he shielded from my view), Mr. A. held up his pad and pointed at his scrawls. Solicitously he explained that he had taken the total number of syllables in the first paragraph and divided by the total number of words. “Your fog count,” he announced with a grief-stricken look, “is three.” He rolled his lips tight, making a small tuft of hair on his chin point accusingly at me. “Much too high,” he said, shaking his head. His expression darkened and became so pained, in fact, that I thought he might cry from the shear magnitude of my transgression.
After several nervous and silent minutes, I suggested we try the test on the final draft of the introduction to a manual which he had just finished. Quickly I pulled two copies from the file on my lap.
“….Well….,” Mr. A. cleared his throat, pointed the tuft of chin hair at me and with a blush began to move his lips in time with his finger. I, of course, did my own count on the second copy. “Fog count,” Mr. A. cleared his throat while his face flushed a bright red, “five!”
I learned two important lessons about writing that day:
- Make your writing simple, clear and concise.
- There are many aspects to communicating besides the writing, itself, which must be considered.
Know them all. And use them wisely.
That’s the reason I wrote How to Write It. To provide you with easy-to-use, total answers for creating effective communications.