Readability Levels and Current Writing Trends

When I was in middle school, the average readability level for most newspapers and magazines was right around an eighth-grade level. By the time I started grad school, State of the Union addresses were clocking in at a sixth-grade level. This has been used as proof that we as a culture are “dumbing down”, but I think that stems from a lack of understanding, both of what it means to be read at a specific grade level and what we as writers are being told to write.

What does that mean? Let’s start with that first one: readability. There are a variety of tools for determining a written piece’s readability, most of them employing a complex formula that takes into consideration how many sentences are in the piece, how many words are in the piece, and how the words are distributed among the sentences. Some tools have their own scale that you just have to know how to read. Some base off school grades, which tends to be easier for us to understand. If a piece scores at an eighth-grade reading level, we expect the average eighth grader and anyone who has completed that level of education to be able to read and comprehend the piece. The idea (theoretically) is that as you continue through school, you should be able to successfully read and comprehend more complex pieces It’s pretty straightforward, and a bit expected.

For writers, readability is a great tool because it can help us analyze our writing and make sure what we’re writing is appropriate to our intended audience, and provides clues on how to adjust our writing if it’s too far off. Or it used to be (although I do know a fair number of writers who prefer to keep writing to a readability level). Somehow, we got stuck in this cycle of simplifying our writing. Writers are coached to select a handful of smaller words over a single longer word with the same number of syllables, to create simpler sentence structures. Supposedly, it’s to create reading that could be easily skimmed and digested in an increasingly impatient, on-the-go culture. And we might be.

But we’re creating another problem. Readability scores depend in large part on the complexity of the sentences in the measured piece. When we choose simpler language, when we choose simpler sentence structures, we lower our own readability. So, it’s not necessarily that we as a culture are dumbing down. It’s that we as a culture don’t necessarily have the time to engage with reading more appropriate to our education level.

The appropriateness of the content contained within those structures? That’s a different conversation altogether.


For those curious, this post clocks in at about a tenth-grade level. So does yesterday’s post. Saturday’s contribution to #SaturdayScenes, a YA story, clocks in at about a fifth-grade level. Guess I’ll be doing some heavy revisions.


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