Your readers will love you for it! (Though they'll never suspect what you've done.)
Once upon a time, in my workshops, I would ask an attendee to read aloud a long, academic passage from a book I provided.
The passage defined two literary terms: metonymy and synecdoche. They'd read what I'd handed them. "So," I'd then ask, "what grade level were those definitions written at? Were they written at the middle school, high school, or college level?" The consensus pegged the passage around the college level.
In fact, though -- using the standard Flesch-Kincaid scale built into Microsoft Word -- these highly technical, literary definitions scored at the 8th-grade level.
My point was this: you can write about anything, even arcane academic topics, at the 8th-grade level. And you should. I give you two commandments:
Newspapers like the Wall Street Journal do not write down to their readers. They do, however, try to make their information fast and easy to absorb. On slow days, I will check a few paragraphs from a Wall Street Journal feature article, just to see. Most score in the 8th- to 10th-grade range.
That thriller you bought for your airplane flight? Many will score at the 4th-grade level. Why? Because the lower the grade level, the faster you can read stuff ... and that's what makes a "page-turner" turn.
The preceding passage, incidentally, scores at the 5th-grade level.
It's all about those ratios
The most common objection I hear, when I tell people they should write at the 8th-grade level, is this: "All my readers are college educated. They don't need the material dumbed down."
People often misunderstand the grade-level issue.
It's not a question of "dumbing down." It's a question of speeding up.
Readers want to get through your stuff as fast as possible. They have busy lives. Write much above the 8th-grade level, and you'll slow them down. Ease of comprehension and grade level are directly linked. Raise your grade level and ease of comprehension slows. Lower your grade level and ease of comprehension speeds up.
It doesn't matter what vocabulary you use, by the way. Really. Feel free to use scientific terms, medical terms, economic terms, whatever suits you. What does matter in your writing will be the ratios: the ratio of short words to long, the ratio of short sentences to long, the ratio of short paragraphs to long. You want to strongly favor the short over the long whenever possible. The higher your ratio of short to long, the lower your grade level.
And is a dangerous word in this context. People will often take two perfectly fine short sentences and join them with an and, making a longer, gangly, harder to absorb sentence. Don't use and without good reason.
The preceding passage scores at the 6th-grade level.
How to score your grade level
There are free online grade-level checkers. You simply cut-and-paste a passage of your prose into the checker and hit a button. Voilà.
If you work in Microsoft Word, you own a built-in grammar checker. The Word grammar checker allows you to score the grade level of your prose in a matter of seconds.
When I'm writing for a client, I score my grade level of my prose obsessively, sometimes every few minutes. I consider it unacceptable to turn in text written much above the 8th-grade level. People hire me to please their readers. Low grade levels make for pleasant reading.
In my version of Word, the grammar checker is found in the Tools menu, under Spelling and Grammar. If this feature isn't working in your Word, go to your Preferences and make sure you've selected both "Check grammar with spelling" and "Show readability statistics."
The preceding passage scores at the 7th-grade level.
Excerpted from Tom Ahern's forthcoming new book on donor newsletters, from Emerson & Church.