Write Dumb

October 13, 2014

It may seem counter-intuitive, but there is a direct correlation between simplicity and success – at least when it comes to your content. I’m talking about readability: how easy it is for your content to be read and understood. And it turns out, less is more.

This can be difficult for a lot of people, especially writers who relish in the art of crafting eloquent prose (but I wouldn’t know any of those). After all, you spend the majority of your time in grade school struggling to meet seemingly impossible word-count requirements rather than perfecting the art of efficient communication. That’s not to say that readability is all about the total length of your content, in fact, that has little to do with it. Readability is a science in itself, and there are many different factors to consider when determining if your text is easy to read.

Why Does it Matter

If I’m writing an email to the CEO of a company, why should I have to simplify or “dumb down” my writing? Surely they will be able to comprehend my message. But it’s not about their ability to comprehend your information. There are plenty of good reasons to keep your message simple when writing to a CEO, including their time. These are busy people, the more intricate your message, the less likely it will be fully read. Another interesting thing to consider about CEOs and other successful entrepreneurs is that a high percentage of them are dyslexic (you can read more about that here).

But it’s not just something to consider when writing emails to your favorite CEO. It applies to all types of content and audiences. In 1993, the U.S. Department of Education conducted the first national Adult Literacy Survey (NALS). It studied 26,000 U.S. adults, representing 101 million people, and found that only three percent of Americans read at or above the eleventh-grade level. That means if you write at the eleventh-grade level, 97 percent of U.S. adults won’t be able to understand your copy. If that doesn’t make you take action, I don’t know what will. But how do you know what grade level you are writing at?

Flesh-Kincaid Grade-Level Formula

There are more than 200 readability formulas, but the Flesh-Kincaid Grade-Level formula is arguably the most popular. The formula uses the Average Sentence Length (ASL) and Average Number of Syllables per Word (ASW) as a measure of readability:

Grade Level = 0.39 (total words/total sentences) + 11.8 (total syllables/total words) – 15.59

You can easily check your own score in Microsoft Word, sans math. It’s a simple setting and the statistics pop up after every spelling and grammar check.

For a general audience, a seven or an eight is what you’re trying to achieve. Newspapers generally aim for a score below eight, sometimes as low as six. The Wall Street Journal is written at the ninth-grade level. It just goes to show, even if your audience is highly educated, they will still appreciate a simple message.

What can you do to Improve your Readability?

You will find dozens of lists on the Internet telling you how to improve your readability. But this is what it boils down to – simplify:

  1. Shorten your sentences. Aim for 9 to 14 words. Avoid semicolons.
  2. Use common words. I started this article with the word “counter-intuitive” – that is not a common word (bad copywriter, bad). Think simpler. Preposterous vs. silly.
  3. Cut down on your syllables. This takes shortening your sentences a step further and often is a side effect of using common words. For instance, counter-intuitive is packed full of syllables. Had I used “illogical,” I would have gone from six syllables to four.
  4. Pay attention. Simply be aware of readability. Always be thinking, “How can I make this message more efficient?” Reviewing your copy is a must. Always re-read what you’ve just written.

And there you have it – readability. In case you are wondering, here are the stats for this article. You were just reading at an eighth-grade level!