Write Dumber

Have you ever noticed the “reading level” statistics that Microsoft Word shows you? They give the impression that writing for a higher level is good and writing for a lower level is stupid. But the opposite is true. Shane Snow, founder of content marketing website Contently , compared the reading levels of several bestsellers . Michael Crichton’s work came to the 8th grade reading level. Thomas Pynchon enrolled in 7th grade, Jane Austen in 5th, Ernest Hemingway in 4th, Goodnight Moon in 3rd.

There are two lessons to be learned here:

1. Reading levels are bullshit. Seventh graders can understand Michael Crichton better than Pynchon, and toddlers can understand Goodnight.

2. Whatever you write, you should probably try to reach a lower reading level.

You see, the reading score only measures the difficulty of your words, sentences, and paragraphs. They have nothing to do with the sophistication of your ideas or how well you write. Good writing can be easy enough for a third grader to memorize, and can be difficult for a college student to learn. There are good and bad entries in each range of the Snow chart.

Except for this: if you try to complicate your writing in order to appear smart, your writing will be worse. Simplified is better. You don’t have to give up unnecessary things like Hemingway; you just need to make sure any tricky bits are tricky for some reason. Don’t use words if you don’t understand them. Don’t use semicolons if you don’t understand them. If you want to sound better, write dumber.

How important is “reading level”? | Shane Snow


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