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.
... 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.