On Choosing Simple Writing

While checking one of my grammar guides today (needing a bit of help with an article I’m writing), I came across this advice in The Little. Brown Handbook:

Any writing that is more elaborate and ornate than its subject requires will sound pretentious, this is, excessively showy. Good writers choose their words for their exactness and economy. Pretentious writers choose them in the belief that fancy words will impress readers. They won’t.”

And a bit further on, I read this:

When either of two words will say what you mean, prefer the small word to the big one, the common word to the uncommon one.”

In my writing, I have to fight the tendency to use big words all the time and I don’t always win. Sometimes I will go back over a completed article and try to root them out, but not always. And sometimes I will take advantage of two little gems in my MS Word program that test reading ease, the Flesch-Kincaid Reading Level and the Flesch-Kincaid Grade Level Scale. I’ve not done that a lot lately, although I should.

The Flesch-Kincaid Reading Level measures the difficulty of a piece of writing and gives you the grade level of the text. The Flesch-Kincaid Index tells you how easy something is to read. A sentence scoring 8.0, for example, means someone in the eighth grade could understand it. Normal writing is usually between 7 and 8. You can find details about both measures all over the web. (I’ve been told that Reader’s Digest is aimed at the reading level of a 13-year-old, which probably would be grade 7 or 8.)

I decided to check one of my earlier posts (Seven Motivation Tips to Help You Write More, Sell More) to see how I was doing, and as I suspected, the post didn’t fall between 7 and 8 but slightly over at 8.4. That may be because my paragraphs were long (averaging 16.3 sentences per paragraph). Now that I know this, I’m going to try to make it a habit to check every post before I publish it and to aim for a lower number on the scale.

I’m also going to aim for more exactness and economy in my word choices and to bypass fancy words. By the way, I checked this post before publishing it. The Flesch-Kincaid grade level was 7.9. Looks like I just squeaked by.

© 2008 by Laverne Daley

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