Exposing the lore 02: “Write at an 8th grade level for everyone”

((.39(total words/total sentences)) + ((11.8(total syllables/total words)) – 15,59

Anyone out there remember applying that formula to your writing as a sophomore or junior in high school English class? That’s the Flesch-Kincaid grade level writing evaluation formula. If I apply this formula to this paragraph from my introductory post on Internet Content Lore (ICL):

That change is what I, myself, strive for in participating in these types of writing forums. I’ve observed the lore, from its creation, through its repetition, to its becoming a type of commandment to writers. In future posts, then, I want to take each of the lore that is repeated to new and experienced writers, try to trace its origin (not an easy task, that one!) and prove or disprove its veracity. In all cases of lore, I will certainly offer alternatives to the popular, anecdotal lore that we hear again and again, couched in kind words of advice, helpful tips and the like.

I get a grade of 11,8, that is, close to senior year reading level. Of course, if I run the same paragraph through a web-based automatic scorer, the counts are slightly different and the score is lowered to just 9,12, that is, just freshman level.

So, if I do the math myself, I find that my writing is well above levels that the “average” web reader can handle. If I let Internet do the math, I’m closer to the right level, though still taxing some readers’ capacity for understanding what I’m trying to communicate.

It was curious for me to discover that this particular formula was devised first to evaluate the complexity of training material used by the military, particularly computer aids for editing tests, …. and the Computer Readability Editing System. Hmm, ironic, isn’t it? Also interesting was finding out that this formula was used to evaluate insurance contracts and helped in the development of legislation concerning the grade level in which such contracts could be drafted.

In 2005, Jakob Nielsen predicted on the Nielsen Norman Group web site that “in five years or so, lower-literacy users will probably be 40% of Web users.” He had already defined, or explained the reading habits of these so-called lower-literacy readers.

From that same article, Nielsen says “Lower-literacy users focus exclusively on each word and slowly move their eyes across each line of text. In other words, they ‘plow’ the text, line by line. This gives them a narrow field of view and they therefore miss objects outside the main flow of the text they’re reading.” He also indicates that “According to the U.S. Department of Education’s National Assessment of Adult Literacy, 43% of the U.S. population has low literacy.” but adds that this percentage, in 2005, would be around 30% on Internet.

I found a fine debate from 2009 on this subject because of a bit of “advice” given on a site called Daily Blog Tips. Of course, the tip was, verbatim: “3. Write at an 8th grade level.“ Some agreed and justified the tip, others got their fur ruffled. What was interesting was that both sides interpreted the tip in their own way. Though the writer of the tip begins by saying “You don’t have to dumb-it-down,” many reading it tried to defend using more complex language because the intention behind using “8th grade level” sounds like “dumbing it down”.

It was harder to find more recent information on the subject. I did find this lore repeated in a 2015 slideshare on making content more accessible. The material shared is actually good advice; however, the lore that writing must/should be 8th grade level continues to raise its ugly head and continues to be ambiguous in meaning, wide-open to individual interpretation.

My own conclusion? Well, I’ve just run this entire post through an online F-K rater. The grade level assigned (keeping in mind that this particular rater miscounted the sentences and syllables in my earlier sample text) was: 7.9. Gunning-Fog score: 10.4; Coleman-Liau Index: 10.6; SMOG Index: 8.2; Automated Readability Index: 6.6. Average of the five: 8.7. Who to believe? Which to use as a yard-stick to evaluate my writing? None of the above, I say.

I write as I write. If the style of my writing is difficult for you to follow, you will need to find writers on the same topic who appeal to your personal level of comprehension, your interest in the topic, your ability to assimilate ideas and interpret them to your own satisfaction. If the style of my writing does not get in the way of what I am saying to you, if you actually find it interesting and entertaining, then you may become a fan and look for more of my text to expand your knowledge on the subject. Either way, I will not evaluate your literacy level based on your capacity for getting to the end of my posts.

There have been many times on forums where other members have pointed out that my posts are just too long to read through. This I understand and accept. On the other hand, there have been many times when readers have thanked me for being thorough in my posts. This I understand and appreciate. I belong to the second group. I skim over short, two to three lined posts and pause and read posts with several paragraphs. That’s me. And I know there are others like me. They are the audience I am writing to.

Which brings us to audience. If you think your audience will only digest 8th grade writing, then you should follow the advice represented by that lore. If, on the other hand, your audience welcomes complex thought, well-structured and presented, with multiple-syllable words and lengthy, complex sentences, then that is the type of writing you should do. In the first case you’ll want to take advantage of F-K scales and tools (Microsoft Word has one built in); in the second case you can relax and write as you wish, knowing that ten years after Nielson’s prediction, the majority of Internet readers probably continue to be high-literacy readers. Haven’t found proof of that, but at least in the circles I move, the percentages are higher than 90%, giving me the freedom to write without mathematical formulas.

What about the rest of you? What do you think about the 8th grade level lore?

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