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.
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).
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