Why You Should Write For An 8th Grader

Most companies produce text-based content every day. Blog posts, news releases, product announcements, Tweets, Facebook posts and more. An endless tsunami of words.

You know, of course, that good writing delivers better results. It engages the audience, creates affinity and drives sales.

But what makes a piece of writing good? That’s not as hard to answer as you might expect.

A piece of writing is good if it is easy to read, whether it’s great literature or a killer blog post.

In fact, a good rule of thumb is to write for someone with a Grade 8 literacy level.

But we’re a business, I can hear you muttering, not a children’s book author.

Take a look at some of the Western world’s top authors and you’ll see what I mean. Using the Flesch-Kincaid readability test, Shane Snow tested the works of people like Ernest Hemingway, Cormac McCarthy, Jane Austen and F. Scott Fitzgerald. All came back requiring a Grade 8 literacy level or less.

Hemingway came back at Grade 4. He’s known for his tight, even terse prose, but is rarely considered a children’s author. Even David Foster Wallace (!) came back beneath a Grade 9 literacy level.

But fiction is different than the stuff you might write, right? So, Snow also looked at non-fiction writers. Sheryl Sandberg, Tim Ferriss and Malcolm Gladwell’s books all require a Grade 7 to 9 literacy level.

What’s the take-away from this? Simple is good.

Hemingway and Gladwell are great writers (in my view at least) because they don’t get lost in proving how smart they are by using big, fancy words when a shorter word will do. They focus on telling the story and helping the audience draw meaning from what they are writing.

Big words and complex sentence structure don’t make the writer look any smarter, but they do confuse the reader and make them lose the plot.

So is your goal to illustrate the depth of your vocabulary or effectively tell your audience your story?

Plain language makes it much easier to explain complex ideas or themes.

It’s also important when you consider how people are consuming your content. You need your stuff to be “thumb worthy” – to make it good enough to keep people scrolling on their phone or tablet in a world of almost infinite options.

It’s important not to confuse being “professional” with bloated copy. That’s how you end up “utilizing” a product rather than “using” it, or a host of other myriad crimes against simplicity.

Simple doesn’t mean stupid. It means clear.

Keep that in mind as you write your next blog post or web site. Write for your audience, not yourself.

And by the way, you can test your work to measure its readability on this site. I checked, and this post is written for a Grade 6 literacy level.

Allan Gates

Allan Gates is a partner with Bonfire.