I was surprised to learn today that, according to National Assessment of Adult Literacy surveys, the average American adult reads at a 9th-grade level, prefers to read two grades below that, and will tolerate two levels above. Interestingly, most popular novels are written at a 7th-grade level while most newspapers are written at an 11th-grade level. Maybe if newspapers reduced their reading level by four grades, the general public would be more informed about critical issues.
Recently, the built-in WordPress editor suggested I change a fairly ordinary word to something even simpler. I was annoyed by the suggestion because, to me, most synonyms have subtle differences that make them more or less suitable for a particular situation. If we always choose the simplest word, what is the use of having 1 million words in our English language?
When I complained about the WordPress editor attempting to dumb down my writing, a fellow writer reminded me that it’s important to make website articles accessible to all and that many American adults read at a 5th-grade level or below. I was already aware of this statistic from my work in the health care field, where all health and safety information is written at a 5th-grade level.
Over the years, I’ve received a fair amount of feedback about my use of language. Once, my friend Dawn commented on a question I had just asked our waitress, “What kind of salad dressing does one get with that?” Dawn said I didn’t “fit in” by phrasing a simple question so formally.
To be fair, my question was probably a bit too formal for lunch at the local diner. We were 26-year-old customer service reps, not college professors or even college graduates. Maybe “What kind of salad dressing comes with that?” would have been a better question.
Twenty years later, I was surprised to read the results of a skills test I had taken as part of the hiring process for my new job. The gist of the report: This candidate uses words that are not in most people’s vocabulary. This time, my language skills were appreciated, and I certainly needed them. The executive I was editing used words and phrases I had never even heard.
I’ve reflected on those experiences occasionally, trying to strike a balance between being myself and making others comfortable. After pondering this subject for a while, and conducting a little research, I’ll aim to keep most of my professional writing at the 7th-grade level. However, since this blog’s target audience is people seeking to hire writers and editors, I wrote it in my natural voice.
Just for fun, I ran this article through the free online Readability Score tool. Results: Grade 9.6.
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