Leveling the Reading Field: How Dumbed-Down Writing Makes Everyone Lose

Did you know that:

  • The Wall Street Journal is written at a high school junior reading level?
  • President Obama’s speeches are written at an 8th grade level?
  • Nearly all of today’s top novels are written at a 7th grade level?

The article goes on to discuss how bloggers can measure the readability of their blog(s) — the idea, of course, being that one needs to market content in a way that makes the most sense to the most readers.

Just a minute, now

Although I understand the necessity of making content readable and understandable, I’m curious as to why we are essentially “dumbing down” content (including novels) so that it caters to the lowest common denominator.

What happened to kids, or people of any age, who enjoy a challenge — who enjoy learning? One of the greatest joys of reading is that you learn while doing it.

The point of the education system is supposed to be that students learn how to think, and learn how to learn. And although many school administrators these days praise all the good that public education is doing, independent thought is often cause for alarm.

Why should an intelligent child be forced to read and do things far below his or her level just because most of the other kids in the class are below where they should be?

Holding a child back when they’re ready to move forward is just as much of a punishment as is pushing a child forward when he or she isn’t ready.

Readability tests

There are several ways to measure the readability of a passage of contemporary academic English — and one of the most popular ways is the Flesch Reading Ease test.

By doing just a bit of counting and some basic algebra, it’s possible to give a piece of content (such as a blog post, newspaper article, or novel) a readability score.

  • 0.00 – 30.0 – content is best understood by university graduates
  • 60.0 – 70.0 – content is easily understandable to 13 to 15 year-old students
  • 90.0 – 100.0 – content is easily understandable to an average 11 year-old

To give you an idea of numbers, I’ve calculated that my first blog post has a score of 56.49 on the Reading Ease Test; this entry you’re reading now has a score of 61.92.

Raising the bar

Although this blog is certainly not the most difficult one to read, it’s evident that I’m no slouch when it comes to writing; I write the way I speak, and I don’t waste time trying to make my blog posts more readable to “Everyman.”

Does this mean I lose readers? Possibly. Is it the best practice for a business to operate the way I do? Probably not.

I know that sometimes it’s necessary to adjust writing styles so that less intelligent/educated individuals are able to understand.

But I’m also a big fan of setting the bar higher. Blogs and novels (and even Presidential speeches) should make you think, expose you to well-expressed new ideas — and you should be able to express yourself back.

What do you think about “dumbing down” writing? Is it better to get as many people reading as possible, or to make sure that everyone is reading at ideal different levels?

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2 thoughts on “Leveling the Reading Field: How Dumbed-Down Writing Makes Everyone Lose

  1. I’m a big fan of two things which may seem contradictory in this instance: 1) Not trying to sound like an “intellectual” and 2) Sounding intelligent. In other words, I don’t believe we should dumb things down, but simultaneously, I don’t think we should be so haughty in our writing that we forget to sound like a normal human. I think you do a terrific job of maintaining the balance!

    1. Those actually don’t sound contradictory at all! Obviously the situation I described can go the opposite way: a person is so focused on sounding smart that they use five-dollar words when 50-cent ones would do.

      This one is tough for a lot of my clients. They’re in super-technical fields, so acronyms and nonsensical phrases like “value added” and “facilitate transparency” are bandied about often. It’s my job to translate that into something readable, and it’s not always easy.

      I’m glad I seem to have a good balance. Makes me feel all warm and fuzzy. 😀

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