Jessica Ramsey Golden: Writing For the American Reading Level

The first thing I learned in journalism
was this: news is written at a 4th or 5th grade reading level.

For Americans the average reading level
is around 7th grade. When people read for fun or information, they tend to
select materials a grade or two below their actual reading level. Thus, writing
at a 4th to 5th grade reading level hits the reader’s sweet spot.

Of course, not every piece of work can
be accurately and artfully rendered at a 4th grade reading level. You may be
writing a meaty literary piece that will be accessible only to college-educated
readers. But it behooves us to be aware of our readability. It can make you
aware of which audiences your work will reach.
In journalism writing to a 4th grade
reading level ensures the holy trinity of writing: accessibility, clarity,
concision. These traits allow the audience to read, understand, and enjoy what
they’re reading.

In other words, it promotes readability.

Readability largely boils down to two
1. Length and complexity of words
Length and complexity of sentences.

Under some metrics, paragraph length is
also considered.

There are a number of tools available
that will tell you the reading level of your writing. The most commonly referenced is the
Flesch-Kincaid test. The Flesch Reading Ease test measures how
easy a text is to read on a scale from 0 to 100. The higher the score, the more
readable the text. The Flesch-Kincaid Grade Level test measures
the reading proficiency a reader needs to comprehend the writing.

In Microsoft Word, you can add a
readability check to your spellcheck function by following these directions. Scrivener also offers readability stats
found by hitting Command-Shift-Option-S. I prefer online tools like and Edit Central

I tested these tools using sample
passages from established writers. The results are available in the
accompanying chart. As much as possible I chose selections of 500 to 1000 words.
I also tried to select excerpts that contained more prose than dialog.

It’s a good idea to check your results
on several tools. Some tools skew high, others low. Checking your writing on
multiple tools will give you an average to work with. In general, the larger excerpt you use,
the more accurate the score will be.

For more tests, tools, and tips visit the
Ultimate List of Online Content Readability Tests. You can also test the readability of
your website or blog by entering the address into available at the
final link below.

Jessica Ramsey Golden’s poetry has appeared in such journals as The William and Mary Review, Orbis International, Calyx, and Cirque. In 2006 she was awarded the Eleanor B. North Poetry Prize. In 2009, she received an Individual Artist Award from the Rasmuson Foundation. In 2011, she began writing fiction. She is currently drafting a science fiction project, while seeking representation for her literary Gothic novel, The Hidden Door. 

1 thought on “Jessica Ramsey Golden: Writing For the American Reading Level”

  1. But then there is Rudyard Kipling one of my childhood favorites; "That very next morning, when there was nothing left of the Equinoxes, because the Precession had preceded according to precedent, this 'satiable Elephant's Child took a hundred pounds of bananas (the little short red kind), and a hundred pounds of sugar-cane (the long purple kind), and seventeen melons (the greeny-crackly kind), and said to all his dear families, 'Goodbye. I am going to the great grey-green, greasy Limpopo River, all set about with fever-trees, to find out what the Crocodile has for dinner."

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