When I was in graduate school, I noticed that most of my fellow grad students, and our professors, loved to use big words and long sentences.
They tried to use the most complex words and sentences as possible in their scholarly works. Paragraphs were measured in linear feet, not number of words. And it was not unheard of to spend 12 – 15 hours writing a simple 10 page paper.
Not me, of course. I had cut my writing teeth at my college newspaper, so I wrote like a journalist: short words, short sentences, short paragraphs. (Something that would send my 7th grade English teacher screaming from the room.)
I constantly got easy A’s on my papers, while the other students were getting B’s and hard-won A’s, and spending a lot more time on their work than I did.
It never occurred to anyone in the department that it was how I wrote that made the difference, not the quality of my ideas or the way I expressed them. I didn’t even stumble on this little revelation myself until many years later.
What I learned was, if you want to be read, write simply. Don’t be flowery or use $50 words. Write at an 8th grade reading level, or possibly even a 6th. That’s where most newspapers are written these days. TV news copy is written at the 4th grade level.
The American Marketing Association even backs me up on this.
In January 2008, authors G. Alan Sawyer, Juliano Laran, & Jun Xu published the study, The Readability of Marketing Journals: Are Award-Winning Articles Better Written?
In a word, yes.
Basically, they wanted to see if award-winning journal articles were written more simply than the non-winners (we call them “losers” outside the academic walls). They ran the text through Microsoft Word’s Flesch-Kincaid Reading Level grader, and did a whole bunch of complicated stuff with statistics that I won’t even pretend to understand.
The Reading Level score corresponds to the grade of education of the reader it would take to understand it. If your score is 8.4, it’s suitable for an 8th grader. A 14.6 is suitable for a college sophomore. A score of 21 or higher is suitable for Stephen Hawking, although he may find it a little pedestrian.
Here’s what they found:
Of the 15 articles with the best readability scores, 13 of them were award winners. They had scores from 12.3 to 14.4. Of the 11
worst least readable articles, 9 of them were “non-winners,” and carried scores from 18.3 to 21.3.
(Their own article has a 13.98 Flesch-Kincaid score. This post has a 6.7. I guess I win.)
So why is a lower reading score so important? Are we getting dumber? Do we all have the attention span of a bunch of hyperactive 12-year-olds?
No, the reason is our mental bandwidth. Let’s face it, we’re all busy, harried, and are running eight things through our brains at once. And that’s on a good day. When we’re confronted with a piece of text, we want it to be as simple as possible.
Simple doesn’t mean we’re stupid, or that our brains are shutting down. It means we don’t have to devote as much time and energy to it. We can process the text easily, absorb the information, and move on. We can absolutely read something that’s long and complex. We’re all smart people, and we can certainly read something written at a 12th grade reading level. It’s just that people sometimes need the break from the long and complex. Simple writing gives that to them, and as a result, is more readily accepted.
Basically, if you want to win readers, stick with the writing style the newspapers use. Short words, short sentences, short paragraphs. Most important information goes up front, least important goes last. Avoid needless words.
Otherwise, your readers will eventually get bored and go elsewhere.
(Note: If you’re a Mac user, and don’t have access to Word’s Flesch-Kincaid grader, you can download Flesh, the document readability calculator. I used it to grade this post.)