Is Your Audience Smarter Than a Fifth Grader?

A former creative nonfiction student of mine called with some news. After months of trying to land a freelancing gig, Julia had gotten an offer to blog for an up and coming travel site. But the company had sent her their style and formatting guides, and something she read made her wonder.

“It says all my posts and articles should be written for a fifth grade reading level,” she said. Only one idea per sentence. No words bigger than two syllables. Is that — typical?”

I smiled. I’d been thrilled a couple of years ago when one of my clients had said he wanted content appropriate for a high school level reader rather than the proverbial fifth grader. That meant I could get away with a compound sentence or two. Maybe even slip in a few dependent clauses, woo hoo!

Well, yes, I told her. It seems to be typical for a lot of online writing.

“But if everybody writes for a fifth grade level,” Julia said, “Then nobody’ll ever get to the sixth grade! They’ll never know new words. We’re just helping people stay dumb!”

Julia, who in my class had written a brilliant, bitter memoir of her mother’s struggle with dementia, went on to channel her inner fifth grader and write equally brilliant, if simply stated, insights on vacation destinations. She did well.

But she had a very good point.

Take a look at the guidelines for online writing offered by the top tier blogging and content-writing experts, and you’ll find recommendations like those offered by Julia’s client, plus others such as:

  • One sentence per paragraph
  • Avoid big words
  • Don’t make allusions to literature (true — a guideline once given to me)
  • Stay conversational; imagine you’re having coffee with your reader
  • Keep it short and sweet

Now, the world of online writing is undeniably different from that of print. Reading on-screen can be tiring. And people who are searching for information want to find it fast, with no obstacles in the way. Not everyone wants to expend the time and focus reading a long carefully crafted article that offers an in-depth analysis or twisty, poetic language for the sake of art.

But some do. There’s a place for those kinds of pieces too, and it’s growing, as search engines become more sophisticated, rewarding lengthy original content (like we find here on Medium) over short, spammy keyword stuffed bits. In an ever-expanding number of venues, long, well-researched original pieces trump shallow, quick info bites every time. And there is of course something for everybody; it’s the Internet, after all.

But for popular consumption, many kinds of online writing, blog posts in particular, are nevertheless expected to follow the fifth grade guidelines.

Now, I don’t mean to put down fifth graders. The popular TV show and online quizzes asking adults, “Are You Smarter Than A Fifth Grader?” point up just what fifth graders are expected to know — and, embarrassingly, it’s more than many adults do.

But if you read nothing but fifth grade level stuff, you’ll always read at the level of a fifth grader. And if that happens, what’ll you do if faced with, say, an eighth grade text? Or will eighth grade and higher levels simply vanish from the popular readership entirely because most people are never exposed to them?

Of course, we writers want readers — and that means we need to write in a reader-centered way that makes it easy for them to receive our ideas. But in addition to our responsibility to those readers, we also have a responsibility not only to our own authority and credibility, but also to the language that makes our very existence as writers even possible. Would you trust an expert who could only speak like a middle schooler?

One of our jobs is to show readers what is — but another one is to show them what’s possible too. Among the most basic pieces of advice about writing is to read — a lot. It’s how you see what skilled writers do, and how you expand your scope of language and style to become a skilled writer yourself.

Maybe readers of our posts and articles ought to have the same opportunities to encounter new things. But they won’t, if we continue to give them the blandest, simplest, least challenging writing we can crank out.

What do you think? Add a comment — and please, share if you like!

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