What reading level should you write for?

When I was earning my BA in journalism back in the 1970s, we were told to write at a 5th grade vocabulary/literacy level.

You might ask why? Well, if you write for PhD’s, how much of an audience will you reach? The answer is about 2.5 million Americans have a PhD, and that’s less than one percent of all Americans.

In addition, The Institute of Education Sciences reported in 2008 that roughly 15% of the population reads at a university undergraduate level, but the average American reads at a 7th or 8th grade level according to the Clear Language Group.com.

Because most fiction (I’m not talking about literature) is written for the most people, the average reader is not exposed to higher literacy level writing, and they do not improve beyond the level they are reading.

It has been estimated that there are more than 62.4 million avid readers in the U.S., according to Book Business Magazine, and 63 percent are women. I think it’s safe to say that PhD’s are a minority among avid readers, and discovering what women read is more important than using multi-syllable words to impress an insignificant number of over-educated people.

In fact, “We shouldn’t discount simple writing, but instead embrace it. People freak out that teenagers are reading 5th-grade-level books, but it turns out that’s not a bad sign. Of course, we want to teach teens to comprehend higher reading levels than Harry Potter, but just because we can doesn’t mean we should be forced to waste time slogging through Ph.D.-level papers when the Ph.D.’s could write more fluently. …

“The other lesson from this study is that we should aim to reduce complexity in our writing as much as possible. We won’t lose credibility by doing so. Our readers will comprehend and retain our ideas more reliably. And we’ll have a higher likelihood of reaching more people.” – Contently.com

On that note, did you know that Pulitzer and Nobel Prize winning author Ernest Hemmingway’s The Old Man and the Sea has a 4th grade reading level – think about it?  And Donald Trump talks like a Third-Grader explaining how he won the Republican primary. Trump’s competition scored above the average literacy level.

LR for Cover for Book One on August 12 - 2016_edited-4

If you are a writer (author, journalist, writer, blogger, etc.) and you want to know what literacy level you write at, do what I just did and use Measure Text Readability through Readability Score.com.  For instance, I ran the first chapter – with 1,409 words – of my next novel, “Becoming Human” in the Last Sorcerer Series, and came up with an average reading grade level of 7.0. Not Hemingway, for sure, but also not above the reading level of the average American. Don’t forget, most readers don’t read books they can’t understand.


Lloyd Lofthouse is a former U.S. Marine and Vietnam Veteran, with a BA in journalism and an MFA in writing, who taught in the public schools for thirty years (1975 – 2005).

A1 on August 26 - 2016 Cover Image with BLurbs to promote novel_edited-1

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7 responses to “What reading level should you write for?”

  1. What a great post. I put it to immediate use and will share will others. Thanks

  2. “And Donald Trump talks like a Third-Grader explaining how he won the Republican primary.” Personally, I LOVED it!

    I also love the last paragraph of your comment above: ” if your audience is college educated with graduate degrees why write for the average American reader who probably won’t be interested anyway?”
    (Madelyn Griffith-Haynie – ADDandSoMuchMore dot com)
    – ADD Coach Training Field founder; ADD Coaching co-founder –
    “It takes a village to educate a world!”

    1. I’m glad you enjoyed it. Thank you.

  3. Lloyd, I followed happily until you threw in that jibe at Trump. In the 1970s, I was beginning to develop training programs and we used the USA standards set at 9th grade. Now the Army is using graphic or comic book style. Recently, I actually earned income reducing the reading level on some government web sites. It was a more difficult project than first imagined. I agree with you that clear and direct writing should be the order of the day. If you use Microsoft Word while writing, there is a reading grade level measurement on the review panel. Three syllable words get in the way though. That makes writing about “engineers, disasters, construction, reimbursement, documentation and mitigation” a bit difficult.

    1. Sorry about the Trump jibe, but I couldn’t help myself. I’ve read several studies of Trump’s speaking style and he talks with the literacy level of a 3rd grader and who does he appeal to — mostly white men who dropped out of school or only finished high school, according to what I’ve read. Trump was talking at the level of most of his supporters so they’d understand his lies and believe them.

      And yes, it can be a challenge to write at 8th grade level or below if your audience is college educated, but if your audience is college educated with graduate degrees why write for the average American reader who probably won’t be interested anyway?

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