When you’re writing for the internet, you should be aiming for a 6th-grade reading level. This isn’t just personal advice. It has been documented again and again that simple writing is read more than complex writing. Why is it important to simplify your writing? Is it necessary if I’m not aiming for a mass audience? Let’s take a moment to examine this phenomenon.
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Lowering Cognitive Load
Let’s say I can carry 100 lbs. That is a valuable skill to have, but that doesn’t mean I like carrying 100 lbs. It’s a lot of work! If given a choice between lifting 50 lbs or 100 lbs, I would prefer the lighter weight. Nobody likes to carry unnecessary weight.
This is the same for reading. Complex sentences, blocky paragraphs, and confusing grammar require effort. Clear and simple writing has a much lower cognitive load, making the reading experience more pleasant.
Think of your own behavior. When you land on a web page, do you ever scan the text before starting to read? How do you make the decision to read the page? You are probably less likely to read long pages with big blocks of text than shorter page with lots of images and clear headlines. Simple writing is more inviting, and therefore more likely to be read.
Do your reader a favor, and take a load off their shoulders.
This Isn’t About Lowering Standards
Often when you hear advice like “write at a 6th-grade reading level,” people think this is criticism of the audience. There are hordes of under-educated yokels who can’t handle polysyllabic words and compound sentences. You may even convince yourself that since you’re not trying to write for high school dropouts, you don’t need to simplify your writing.
This reasoning is backward. Think about yourself. Do you enjoy reading content with blocky paragraphs and run-on sentences? Does the complexity actually improve the article? Probably not!
This is especially true when writing for the internet. Over 90% of what I read on the internet is either looking for information or entertainment. When looking for information, I usually want a direct answer to a specific question, so I prefer content that is easy to read. If I am seeking entertainment, I want content that is light, fluffy, and easy to read.
While people may not identify why they gave up on reading an article, dense writing is one of the most important causes.
How to Simplify Your Writing
Reducing the difficulty of your writing isn’t as hard
- Break long sentences into short sentences
- Break long paragraphs into short paragraphs
- Make sure there are no grammatical errors
- Make sure grammar is clear
- Don’t use unnecessarily “thesaurused” words
The Hemmingway App is an excellent tool for checking the complexity of your writing. I use it, especially when I am working on an article that I want to be simplified.
Obviously, it isn’t always possible to achieve 6th grade. Some topics can only be simplified so much. Still, the easier your writing, the more people will actually read it.
Simplify Your Writing to Help Your Audience
Mark Twain once wrote, “I apologize for such a long letter – I didn’t have time to write a short one.” This is sentiment is just as applicable here. Some people may worry that keeping work simple will compromise quality. In fact, if you care about your reader you should simplify your writing.
Do your audience the courtesy of making your work accessible. In fact, simplification will sharpen your content and improve your grammar. Overall, your writing will be better.