Seeing through the fog index

Steve Hirano, Editor/Associate Publisher
Posted on December 1, 2003

Short sentences are easy to read. And understand. One-syllable words are good too. Just ask SCHOOL BUS FLEET’s editorial adviser, Howard Rauch.

Howard critiques several issues of our magazine each year, providing the staff with statistical and qualitative analysis of the editorial content. We receive three or four pages of feedback from Howard, much of it in the form of tables and charts. The critiques help us improve the magazine, because we’re so close to what we do that we can benefit from an outside perspective.

What’s a fog index?
But I can’t say that I understand everything that’s included in the critiques. Take, for example, the fog index. This is a rating system based on a complex formula that’s meant to help us write more clearly and concisely.

To determine the fog index of, say, a news story in the front of the magazine, Howard literally counts the number of words in each sentence as well as the number of words with three or more syllables. Long words and long sentences create a high fog index, which is bad. Conversely, short words and short sentences create a low fog index, which is good.

I have to admit that I enjoy saying “fog index” more than I enjoy having it applied to my work. In all the years I’ve been a professional writer, I’ve never consciously tried to write shorter sentences or to use shorter words (which may be obvious to long-time readers, especially those of you who tire of my inexhaustible supply of clauses and compound sentences). I’m not bragging either. I’m sure my writing would be better and, more importantly, easier to read if I lowered my fog index, but I just never seem to get around to it.

Which brings me to my point. How many of you could benefit from taking the leap of commitment that you’ve always put off? It could be something as simple as setting up a regular exercise program or creating a monthly household budget. Or it could be something more complicated, such as setting up a paperless shop program for your fleet or designing and implementing a special-needs roadeo for your district or terminal.

Take the challenge
Running a school bus operation is not a simple task. On the contrary, it’s actually quite complicated and getting more complicated each day, what with legislative mandates such as the No Child Left Behind Act and transportation budgets that seem to continue to shrink even as the U.S. economy seems to recover. This is not a profession for people unwilling to embrace challenges. And yet we’ve all got our own personal fog index.

That’s because it’s so easy to make excuses about why we can’t get something done. We’d rather run around putting out small fires than confront the really dangerous fire that’s been smoldering under our noses. Delaying things for another day, or week, or year is so much simpler than tackling the challenge right then and there. I’d like to think that we’re all capable of changing our ways.

Especially when it comes to safety, don’t allow complacency to cloud your judgment. Make it a daily goal to tackle one lingering challenge. Even if you only make an inch of headway, you’re better off than you were before. And never give up on yourself or those who work for you and with you. I, for one, promise to write shorter sentences, beginning now. Howard will be surprised. See?

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