Friday, June 13, 2014

Fun with Text Analysis

As promised (or threatened, depending on your point of view) in this post a few weeks ago, I've been puttering away on a new Dick Londergan tale.

For those that don't know, Londergan is my version of homage to the iconic private detectives of the past, except in Londergan's case, he's a detective from the past who happens to be caught in the modern world.

Meanwhile, one of the things I like to do while writing is to run my stuff through a text analyzer, mostly to make sure I'm not falling into the trap of repeating crutch words over and over (as is my habit) and also with an eye toward the Flesh-Kincaid grade level and reading ease scale, just to make sure I'm not overwriting.*

I mentioned in a post years ago this was one of the silly things I do (along with reading aloud) to make sure the words flow smoothly. I remember noting in that post a couple of the habits of Raymond Chandler, one of my favorite writers.

Chandler came to writing late in life, sharpening his skills writing short stories for Black Mask and other pulp magazines before setting off to write his first novel, The Big Sleep, and the rest of the Philip Marlowe canon.

I remember reading somewhere that Chandler used to write his stories on index cards, just to make sure SOMETHING HAPPENED on each and every card that would move the plot or the story along. Otherwise, he just tossed the card.

So recently, just to get myself into “hard-boiled mode” in preparation for writing the new Londergan, I read a few chapters of Chandler, then had the bright idea to run some of his prose through the online text analyzer I've been using lately.

Here's what it had to say about the first two chapters of The Big Sleep:

Number of words:   4051
Number of sentences:   374
Average number of characters per word:   4.16
Average number of syllables per word:   1.36
Average number of words per sentence:   10.83

Small, short words, as you'd expect from the machine-gun cadence of the hard-boiled patois. Sentences were longer than I'd have guessed, though. Now, to the "reading ease" portion:

Flesch Kincaid Grade level:   4.69
SMOG:   7.52
Flesch Reading Ease:   80.71

(The "SMOG" index is ostensibly how many years of formal education a person needs to understand the text upon first reading.)

Just for fun, here are the results from the first Dick Londergan short, Telegraph Hill:

Number of words:   4446
Number of sentences:   405
Average number of characters per word:   4.04
Average number of syllables per word:   1.34
Average number of words per sentence:   10.98

I'm actually kind of blown away by the similarity, but in a good way. Then again, I do remember being in the zone when I wrote that one. I was so flinty, you coulda lit a match off me.

And "reading ease":

Flesch Kincaid Grade level:   4.54
SMOG : 7.55
Flesch Reading Ease:   82.06

And . . . I'm blown away again. I don't think I've ever written anything before or since that low on Flesh-Kincaid, including the rest of the Londergans. Plus, I'm usually lucky to be around 77 or 78 on reading ease.

Finally, the text analyzer provides Helpful Hints! on how to make your writing clearer. Here are some of the suggestions it made about Mr. Chandler's masterpiece:

List of sentences which we suggest you should consider to rewrite to improve readability of the text:

Here, in a space of hexagonal flags, an old red Turkish rug was laid down and on the rug was a wheel chair, and in the wheel chair an old and obviously dying man watched us come with black eyes from which all fire had died long ago, but which still had the coal-black directness of the eyes in the portrait that hung above the mantel in the hail.

Over the entrance doors, which would have let in a troop of Indian elephants, there was a broad stained-glass panel showing a knight in dark armor rescuing a lady who was tied to a tree and didn't have any clothes on but some very long and convenient hair.

There were French doors at the back of the hall, beyond them a wide sweep of emerald grass to a white garage, in front of which a slim dark young chauffeur in shiny black leggings was dusting a maroon Packard convertible.

I stood up and lifted my coat off the back of the damp wicker chair and went off with it among the orchids, opened the two doors and stood outside in the brisk October air getting myself some oxygen. Then the butler came pushing back through the jungle with a teawagon, mixed me a brandy and soda, swathed the copper ice bucket with a damp napkin, and went away softly among the orchids.

The old man licked his lips watching me, over and over again, drawing one lip slowly across the other with a funereal absorption, like an undertaker dry-washing his hands.

The butler did his best to get me through without being smacked in the face by the sodden leaves, and after a while we came to a clearing in the middle of the jungle, under the domed roof.

It goes on like that for pages.

And yes, Mr. Chandler will get right on that.

* The most cursory Google search on Flesh-Kincaid reveals lots of discussion and debate among writers about just what it means and how important it is. The answer is, and should be, not at all. For example, you'll find children's books that rate a 10th grade reading level, and adult literary masterpieces (some Hemingway shorts, for example) that rate a fourth-grade level. Like anything else, it's just a tool. Your mileage may vary.

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