It was junior high when I started checking the Flesch-Kincaid reading grade level on my term papers and essays. I would get so excited when it came back at 11, 12 or higher. I was writing at a college level! How advanced was I?!?!
Looking back, that was kind of silly. Sure, I impressed some teachers with my big vocabulary. But using big words and complex sentences isn’t necessarily a hallmark of good writing. Good writing, of course, is writing that achieves its purpose.
Today, I work with a number of healthcare clients who require their patient-facing materials to be written at a fourth- or sixth-grade reading level. For some, it’s because their materials must comply with Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services standards. Others have large populations of undereducated adults in their service area. Some want to make things easier on people who read English as a second language.
But unless you know you’re writing for a highly educated audience — i.e., physicians, graduate students or tech engineers — it behooves you to write to a lower grade level than you’re probably used to. So, whenever we write, we need to pause and consider our audience. And if our audience is the general public, we would be best served by aiming for around a sixth-grade reading level.
Sixth grade?! Yes. According to the Organization for Economic Cooperation, 50 percent of U.S. adults can’t read a book written at an eighth-grade level. And it’s not only about ability; it’s about ease. Online writing resource Readable says you’ll see an 83 percent increase in the number of people who will finish reading your copy if your content is at a fifth-grade level versus a 12th-grade one.
But writing to a particular reading level is hard, and you don’t have time to stop to run a readability check along the way. I get that. That’s why I’m sharing these tips I’ve learned over the years. Keep them in mind as you write, and you’ll have less leveling down to do at the end.
1. Put the thesaurus away.
It’s painful, yes. As writers, we like to vary our word choices and use specificity in our language. But when writing to grade level, our focus needs to be on simple language. Don’t reach for “gruesome” when “gross” will do. A reader’s need to understand supersedes your need to use high school vocab words (you know, like “supersede”).
2. Consider subject matter literacy.
With a lot of subject areas (like healthcare), the subject matter itself is part of the problem. It’s not just big words and complex sentences. It’s that the underlying topics are hard to navigate.
No matter what subject you are writing for, if you are writing to grade level, you should be considering that the reader may know nothing about healthcare, technology, law, etc. So take the time to explain technical terms, spell out acronyms and refrain from using jargon. Don’t say “cardiovascular event” when “heart attack” will do. Stick with “broken” instead of “fracture.” And for the love of god, say “flu shot” rather than “immunization” or “vaccine.” Yes, you may have some explaining to do to Dr. Nitpick, but he’s not your audience for this piece.
A quick Google search often turns up “plain English” terms for subjects that tend to be complex. This one from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is useful for some basic public health terminology.
3. Define, define, define.
When you can’t help but use big words such as antioxidant, phytochemicals, diabetes or cryptocurrency, that’s OK. Just be sure to define the term. Sometimes we can’t get away from the words themselves, but we can add context to improve readability and understanding.
4. Opt for short sentences and short paragraphs.
This is one of the hardest tips to follow. But long, complex sentences will not fly when it comes to lower-grade-level writing. Especially if you are writing about a complex subject and are dealing with long words, your sentences need to be particularly brief.
Next time you’re at a bookstore, flip through a few different children’s books and take note of how short the sentences are. Look at a first-grader’s book compared with a fourth-grader’s book and see the difference. Try to stick to no more than 15 words per sentence. (That last one was 11, by the way.)
Likewise, paragraphs shouldn’t be longer than two or three sentences, especially if your content will be read online. And consider your format, too. Columns of justified text may need more line breaks as compared with copy that spans an entire sheet of paper.
5. Strip out unnecessary language.
When you are writing to grade level, it is important to pull out any unnecessary adverbs, adjectives and flowery language. Extra words only have the potential to confuse readers and prevent them from getting your message. Yes, your copy will sound a little “See Jane run.” But that’s OK. We all know exactly what Jane’s doing, right?
6. Make lists when you can.
As marketers, we know that using a bulleted list is a good tactic for encouraging readership. We know it is less intimidating for readers and can help people get through complex copy. So it’s probably no surprise that using bulleted lists can also drive down the grade level of your content. Be on the lookout for ways to break up your copy into lists, whether you’re offering:
- Ways to improve X, Y or Z
- Instructions on how to download an app
- Tips for making <something> easier
OK, you’ve written your next piece with these tips in mind. Now what? Now you’ve got to check your work. See Tools You Can Use for Grade-Level Writing.