Monday, May 22, 2006

Reading Level for the American Audience

There's a misconception that would-be writers should rid themselves of. It's that the reading level of the average American is very low.

While there has been some truth this among younger people since the 1990's, too much has been attributed to it. Moreover, the No Child Left Behind Act has already brought first-through-fourth graders up to par with European students of the same age. Now, as the focus shifts to grades 5 through 8, we can expect the same there soon.

And American universities are still, as always, the best in the world.

Nonetheless, to write for an American audience, you had better aim for a low reading level. No matter what age-group you write for. Why?

It's mainly due to the sheer size of the United States. It has 390 million people, and every adult with a novel manuscript tucked away in some drawer. (No joke. That's the real "American Dream," getting that novel of yours published.) In other words, the competition for publication is extremely high here. So, unless you're famous, or know "somebody," you had better be a writer that Americans will read.

Because the competition is so strong here, the bar is high here. And Americans are spoiled on high quality writing that aims to do what all successful commercial products do -- be user friendly.

Americans are used to writing so clear and readable it practically reads itself. That's the art that conceals art. Good, clear, concise writing. Writing that communicates effectively. Writing unclouded with the fog of excess verbiage. Writing that doesn't distract you by calling attention to itself to show off. Plain English. Writing that never throws you overboard with stuff like Major Hoolihan went to get married to Japan, so you never have to go back and re-read a sentence your brain parsed some way other than the author intended. Writing that doesn't tax you with abstractions and unnecessarily big or uncommon words. Writing that doesn't entangle you in complex sentences that make you forget its subject by the time your hit a verb.

Americans are also very busy. They haven't the time or the patience to slog through dense writing.

Studies show that the more frequently the reader must stop to reread or figure out what the author means, the more likely the reader is to tire, stop making an effort to understand, lose interest, and eventually put down the book. Ask them what they got from it afterwards, and the answer isn't much.

Yet Americans will and do read at a 10th or 12th grade level if the subject matter is something they are deeply interested in (such as a nonfiction book that provides them with medical or health information for some disease they have).

What does this mean? It means that it's not that Americans CAN'T comprehend writing beyond the 8th-grade level, it's that they probably WON'T.

Why? Because Americans have come to expect smooth, quality, reader-friendly writing, and they consequently have little patience for anything less. If reading your book is like slogging through a salt marsh with a machete, they'll just buy the competing book of an author more considerate of the reader.

So, aim for an 8th grade level (except in the case of technical subjects, like the health books I mentioned above, where the vocabulary alone boosts the reading level to 10th grade). In fiction, the lower the better. Ernest Hemingway's fiction is written at a 4th-6th grade level.

In fiction that's crucial, because you never want the Fictive Dream interrupted by the reader having to stop and reread a sentence. That dissolves the magic spell of fiction.

As for academics, well, if they feel they MUST write at a 14-16th grade level, fine. But only people who MUST read that stuff do.


Blogger Christian Paro said...

tl;dr :P

Seriously, though - good article. I've only recently begun to appreciate the importance of targeting my audience's probable degree of patience rather than their actual level of intelligence and erudition, and still am far from having gotten used to the idea (especially so far as non-fiction is concerned).

Just look at that last sentence, it's one of the more straightforward ones.

But going through the process of reading the piece aloud to a representative of that reading audience seems to work out most of the complexity which would scare readers away. The vocabulary is rarely the problem - even if a few are unfamiliar, we are pretty good at filling in the blanks without having to fetch the dictionary. Introducing long-running or non-linear flows of thought which require the reader to consciously hold onto the beginning of a thought while parsing a large amount of intermediate between there and the end of that thought.

Unfortunately, few seem to appreciate the fact that crafting a simple way of saying something is often far more difficult and time-consuming than expressing it in complex terms.

Certainly, I have not so distilled my thoughts here.

12:33 PM  

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