I did an experiment. I can’t wait to tell you about it.
I heard about it from my good friend and master copywriter, Mark Ford
There’s one trick that everybody who writes sales knows and nobody else seems to know. This trick is so effective that Microsoft Word has it even built in so you can test while you write.
First, I took the 30 most popular articles on LinkedIn yesterday, ranked by pageviews.
Then I took the nine front page articles from three college newspapers: The Cornell Daily Sun, The Yale Daily News, The Daily Tarheel (Duke).
For each article I calculated the most important score that every writer should keep track of:
The F-K score.
The Flesch-Kincaid score determines what grade level you are writing. If your score is 10, you are writing at a 10th grade reading level. If your score is 12, you are writing at a 12th grade level. And so on.
The F-K score is calculated by words per sentence (lower is better), syllables per word (lower is better), and a few other factors.
Good sales writers aim for as low a level as possible. Anything greater than 8 is considered bad sales writing. People get fired over it.
But does that mean it’s bad writing? If you write at a 7th grade level, is your writing not getting your point across in an adult manner? Maybe it’s too simple?
I don’t know. You decide.
One of the top-ranked articles on LinkedIn the other day was by Gretchen Rubin. She is a New York Times best-selling author.
She wrote “The Happiness Project,” one of my favorite books, which has sold over a million copies. She’s given TED talks. She’s been a guest on my podcast.
She’s also my cousin. But that’s another story.
Her article was written at a 5th grade level. She had the lowest F-K score of all 30 articles.
Of the 30, I had the next lowest F-K score at 6.4.
Jeff Hayden, who had the most page views by far, was writing at a 7th grade level.
On average, the 30 articles—all by best-selling authors, CEOs, entrepreneurs, great communicators—were written at an 8th grade reading level.
Meanwhile, the college newspapers had an average of a 12th grade level. The lowest score was 9. The highest score was 13.4.
When you want to express an idea, tell a story, share a vision, get your point across, be simple. Don’t use complicated words.
Maybe this is B.S. Maybe all these LinkedIn writers are writing for the lowest common denominator. Maybe it’s not good writing at all—just sales writing.
I don’t know, but I don’t think so. Of the 30, there were many best-selling authors.
But let’s look at other authors who have stood the test of time.
The F-K score of “Old Man and the Sea” is 4. The year after that book was published, Hemingway won the Nobel Prize.
“Heart of Darkness” by Joseph Conrad,considered one of the best books ever, was written at a 6th grade level.
“Crime and Punishment” by Dostoevsky was written at a 7th grade level.
The score for this post: 4.6
Meanwhile, here’s a sample sentence from one of the Cornell newspaper articles (F-K score: 13.4):
“What we’re trying to do is extrapolate positive language from currently existing policies on campus and for once tell people what they can do rather than what they can’t do,” Balik said. “Ideally, this is something that will bring together all constituent assemblies, all the members of the community and really make Cornell a place that’s easier to navigate for all.”
Good luck with that.
The skill of writing effectively is more important than ever. Texts, emails, articles, tweets, books, updates, ads, etc. Writing is how we share and communicate in our lives.
If you have a vision and want your ideas to be heard, then write below an 8th grade level. Don’t be fancy. Don’t show off your semicolons.
Why write something that only few will want to read?
Here is a guide to get you started: Can you write a letter like this one?