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Why You Don’t Have to (And Shouldn’t) Write at an 8th Grade Level

There’s this old saying that floats around in marketing circles. It’s something about writing at an 8th grade reading level. Any of your content, blog or social or whatever, should be written at no higher a level than 8th grade. Maybe it’s the strong influence journalists have had over blogging and content marketing in the past (AP style, of course, is designed to keep newspaper articles simple enough for the average reader).

It has never really hit me what that actually means because, as a studious 8th grader and avid reader, I was reading Jules Verne, H.G. Wells, Edgar Allen Poe, Charles Dickens, and other classics that I would have to imagine are slightly above an 8th grade reading level (at least, I didn’t see many other 8th graders reading those).

In marketing, it’s claimed that writing at a lower level is a way to increase conversions. Because apparently, back in 2003 (I was a high school sophomore, then…) the Department of Education claimed that the average American adult reads at no higher than a 7th or 8th grade reading level. (If you’re wondering what books exemplify an 8th grade reading level, Scholastic tells me that The Hunger Games books are a great example that everyone should know.)

But I would argue that as marketers, that’s a faulty way to look at your audience.

Evaluating Your Audience

Don’t misunderstand: I’m a proponent of fluid sentences and a lack of words loaded with syllables (what a few in my family call “$10 words”). But that doesn’t always mean you’re writing at an 8th grade level.

Who is your audience? What kind of content are they reading? Sure, if most of your audience barely has a high school diploma, then yes, writing simple, easy-to-understand sentences with short paragraphs makes a lot of sense.

But what if a good amount of your audience has college degrees? Masters degrees? There’s still nothing necessarily wrong with writing at a lower level, but if your audience is capable of—and has demonstrated that they can—read at a much higher level, why not exercise that with your content?

Different Topics for Different Levels

Good content should be varied. Realistically, you’re not writing for just one big, lumped-together audience that you’ve tossed into a giant bucket. You’ve got at least two or three different audiences, all of whom will be looking for different types of content to indulge in online. And, of course, they may read at different levels. There’s no shame in crafting content for different levels, using different language to convey your message to each. Often, the title of a blog post will be enough to pull in the right audience—and push away the wrong audience. Write for the people you’re writing for—not above or below them.

Write Like Yourself

Beyond anything, you should write like yourself. Part of crafting a voice for your brand is defining not only who your audience is, but also who you are. Don’t worry about how your audience would say something: how would you say it? Write like you normally would, whether that’s an 8th grade level or a college level, and let someone else—an editor, say—make suggestions on how to make it more readable.

Part of writing is learning to tell a story. Sometimes, that means writing at a very high level (ever read H.P. Lovecraft? Eeesh.), and at others, writing very simply (say, our boy Hemingway). It’s all about the story, and how it should be conveyed. Let it tell you.

Want to learn how to be a better writer for your business? We teach! Check out our classes here. In the meantime, download our Metonymy Media Desk Reference and check your writing against it. It’ll save you loads of headaches—guaranteed.



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