Why We Should Write at an 8th Grade Level

I have a section in my sales training class on business writing where I teach that our target grade level for writing should be between 6th and 8th grade.  I am always met with disbelief, shaking heads, and sometimes outright, “I think you might have gotten this one wrong.” 

So then I share with them that when Ernest Hemingway published “The Old Man and the Sea” he said it was “the best I can write, ever, for all my life.” And he was right – it won the Pulitzer for Fiction in 1953 and was cited when he won the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1954.

And it was written at a 4th-grade reading level.

Of course, I share with my participants that they don’t have to write at such an elementary level.  Only if they want people to read it and understand it.  The more simply you can write – the more readers comprehend and retain.   And when you are writing sales proposals or even business emails, it is ideal if people read and comprehend them!

I am certainly not alone in preaching this – in the ad world, web SEO world, generally in the business world, writing simply is a fundamental goal.  But I do understand my students desire to understand why.  And I really came across a pretty good article (written at a 9th-grade level even though the target audience was neuroscientists!) that explained why we tend to read and retain simpler writing.

Have you ever been asked this math problem?

“A bat and a ball cost $1.10 in total. The bat costs $1.00 more than the ball. How much does the ball cost?”

Most people will respond with 10 cents because, at first glance, that seems logical.  That answer comes from the fast thinking – intuitive part of your brain.

But the correct answer is 5 cents.  (Go ahead, think about it some more).  This answer requires the slow thinking, analytical side of your brain, the one that we don’t often like to bring out unless there is a big upside to it.  Like cracking the lottery winning numbers secret formula.

This research was presented by Shuiyuan Yu and colleagues at the Communication University of China in Beijing.  They found that the fast-intuitive side of your brain requires little to no reasoning.  It is a very handy evolution of our brain that enabled us to react quickly in threatening situations.  It helps us spot patterns, which is a good thing.

And it is this part of the brain that salespeople need to target, most of the time.  Requiring your readers to tax their brain is a great exercise for educators.  But not so much for trying to get your prospect to decide between you and a competitor.  If you make it too complex, they will simply move on.  So writing simply is a goal, and generally, research has shown us that writing between 6th and 8th-grade levels will get the job done nicely.

How can you determine the grade level of your writing?  There are several apps out there to help, but I usually recommend they start with the Fleisch-Kincaid test as it is built into Word.  This tool gives you two pieces of great info – your grade level of writing AND the readability index.  Try it out and see for yourself.

And by the way, this article was written at a 7.3 grade level with a 71.1% reading ease!

Here are some additional articles on this very topic:



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