MORE THAN one “expert” advises targeting an eighth-grade reading level when writing for the average adult.
Not sure what that means? Never fear. The Flesch-Kincaid Grade Level measurement will help you. There’s even a Flesch-Kincaid Grade Level measurement feature built into Microsoft Word.
To the eighth-grade-level assertion, I say balderdash (with a few caveats that I shall list below). Write well, and you needn’t worry about how many of your readers didn’t make it to ninth grade.
Consider typical tips from eighth-grade-level writing proponents: keep sentences and paragraphs short, keep it clear, use active voice, avoid jargon, always choose the smaller word if it will do, eliminate redundancies, and edit out all superfluous words. All of that is great advice for skillful writing. If the Flesch-Kincaid Guide and the Word feature help you to that end, good for you, avail yourself of them.
My gripe is that too-long sentences and paragraphs, lack of clarity, overuse of passive voice, excessive jargon, needless use of big words, redundancies, and unedited, unpruned prose are not hallmarks of post eighth-grade-level writing. They are hallmarks of bad writing.
If readers can’t follow you, before you dismiss them as having a too-low reading level, consider that maybe your writing sucks.
Now for some caveats. No matter how skillful your writing:
(1) You should always know who your reader is and write to reach that person. “Write to” is not to be confused with “talk down to.” Knowing more about a given topic than your reader is not the same as thinking you’re smarter than your reader.
(2) Skillful writing can do only so much to make a difficult subject accessible. More than five decades have passed since I completed my eighth grade reading class, but you will lose me no matter how skillfully and accessibly you write about, say, trigonometry or physics.
(3) There’s no guarantee that people will grasp what you weave between the lines. For instance, not everyone gets underlying themes, sarcasm, or the unreliable narrator technique. It may not be your fault if some readers “just don’t get” what you’re trying to say. But then, it may indeed be your fault. If precious few readers get what you’re trying to say, it is definitely your fault.
(4) Reading level and breadth of knowledge are not the same thing. I can reference a hypnogogic state without defining it when I write for Free Inquiry, but you can bet I’ll define it if I’m writing for the Salt Lake Tribune. Or I’ll make it clickable, as I did here.
(5) The United States and, indeed, the world has a serious literacy problem. The cure isn’t to dumb down writing, but to promote education.
Alternate title: “Listen, you arrogant twit ...” Read this post on my marketing blog (click here).
I ENJOY STUDYING history, but I wasn’t terribly fond of my high school American history class. Our “teacher’s” method consisted of making us memorize names and dates. He graded us on our ability to regurgitate them on demand. No discussion, no exploration. Just names and dates.
A few weeks into the semester, Mr. [Withheld] was hospitalized with a serious illness. The other history teachers had combined and were team teaching their classes, so we joined them. Theirs was a wonderful approach. We discussed not just events, but their context, causes, implications, surrounding issues, and lasting effects. We loved it.
One day during school lunch with my friends Bob and Tim, I said, “I hope Mr. [Withheld] will be okay and return to teach.” Bob said he hoped so, too.
Tim said, “I hope he dies.”
We laughed at Tim’s audacity. He was, of course, being hyperbolic, but in that moment I realized I’d not said the honest but the dutiful thing. Although I didn’t wish Mr. [Withheld] dead, I didn’t want him to return, either.
Fast-forward to today. I wish I were the kind of person who could say—and, more important, mean—the dutiful thing, the thing I like to imagine a good humanist would say, e.g., that I hope Trump recovers. But I wouldn’t mean it. I wish Trump out of office by any non-illegal means possible. If COVID removes his office and, yes, even his life, the world will be better off for it.
Even so, the wait will have been too long and the price too high. He will leave in his wake 200,000-plus COVID-related deaths as of this writing, ramped-up racism and sexism, the intrusion of the religious right into the justice system, strengthened white supremacy, policy made from ignorance, climate catastrophe, science denialism, environmental rape, dictators with Trump’s lipstick on their butts, increased income disparity, sabotaged relationships with allies, disenfranchised voters, vigilanteism, diminished human equity and rights, anti-Muslim policy, locked up children, separated families, and cruelty to the LGBTQ and the non-binary. For starters.
If, unlike me, you can honestly wish Trump well, you are more magnanimous than I. Either that, or you actually support Trump and his policies, which is another way of admitting that you are morally and intellectually bankrupt.
Mr. [Withheld] recovered and dragged us back into drudgery. I hope Mr. Trump does not.
Screenwriters and playwrights, please be advised that use of any of the phrases listed below will henceforth be deemed an admission of lack of imagination:
“This isn’t over.”
“Look at me.”
“You don’t have to do this.”
“Let’s split up.”
“Who else knows about this?”
“The evidence points to him, but he swears he didn’t do it.”
“This isn’t you.”
“This isn’t who we are.”
“We’re not so different, you and I.”
“I’m nothing like you!”
“We are nothing alike.”
“There is no ‘we.’”
Also deemed an admission of lack of imagination:
Walking calmly away with an explosion behind you
Stealing a car thanks to a key stored on the visor
Bringing back the same bad guy death after death
Escaping through a ventilator shaft
Kindly suggest additions by clicking COMMENTS.
From an email blasted to my inbox:
Where to begin?
I have no interest in a would-be vendor who skimmed through my website. I want one who pored and emerged with specific, useful recommendations.
But then, I doubt that you even skimmed. I suspect you obtained an email list and clicked SEND with no further thought. Else, you would have known that, right or wrong, I fancy myself a writer. Armed with that information, you might have thought better of “you could greatly benefit from our high-quality blog writing service,” anticipating that it could come across as something of a slap.
If you didn’t skim, then you lied. I loath misleading statements from people trying to sell. Of course, not having skimmed, you couldn’t be expected to know that.
But suppose I’m wrong and you really did skim. In that case, you score abysmally low in the empathy department. That’s a problem for any writer, for good writing begins with knowing your reader.
All of which argues against the alleged high quality of the writing you hope to sell me.
I must reluctantly conclude that I could not benefit in the least, much less greatly, from your high-quality blog writing.
Note to readers: I didn’t email this reply. If the hapless vendor wishes to read it, he’ll have to skim my website.
You don’t have to be a writer to appreciate this wonderful tribute to writer’s block from Gary Larsen. In deference to Larsen’s copyright, I have masked most of the image here, but you can view it au complet on his website by clicking anywhere on the box below or by clicking here. Enjoy.
My July 4 musings, published three days ago in The Salt Lake Tribune, may be a sure way for me to lose friends, second only to letting them get to know me. You can read the article by clicking here or on the image below.
Rhetorical questions aren’t really questions. They are statements in question form. And while they serve a purpose in dramatic literature, when invoked in matters of fact they signal a closed mind.
Shakespeare used the rhetorical question well when he penned for Juliet, ”What’s in a name? That which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet.” Note that the bard didn’t follow up by having an etymologist, a botanist, a cognitive psychologist, and a taxonomist walk onstage and set her straight. His aim was to express Juliet’s inner turmoil.
But in argumentation, the rhetorical question can be a dishonest device. I can think of no better example than the widely-invoked, would-be refutation of the Theory of Evolution: “If we come from monkeys, why are there still monkeys?” To be sure, some who pose that question really are interested in an answer, and good for them. But those who “ask” with the intent of dismissing the matter might as well say, “I reject evolution, and I’m not interested in being disabused of my ignorance.” If you don’t believe me, watch them tune out or simply await their turn to jump in with “yeah, but ...” as you attempt to explain ancestry, geographic separation, and geologic time.
Some people try to frame a dishonest rhetorical question with, “It’s okay to ask questions, right?” That, too, is rhetorical—and dishonest—in that its goal is justification, not enlightenment. Nevertheless, the answer to “It’s okay to ask questions, right?” is: Not if you have already resolved to reject any answer.
“I’m not interested in being disabused of my ignorance” is intellectually irresponsible, but at least it’s honest.
... where I share thoughts about writing. I don’t consider myself a writing authority, but that doesn’t keep me from presuming to blog like one. Oh, and I reserve the right to digress when I feel like it.