The One Score That Can Improve Your Writing With A Single Click

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?

  • Jay Strickler

    I am an engineer. I write a great many technical and persuasive documents every year. Should I have the same writing goal?

  • michael

    The Daily Tar heel is the University of North Carolina student newspaper.
    The Duke newsletter is The Weekly Reader.

  • rightdivider

    The King James Bible, the most read book in the world, was written on a 6th grade level.

  • Chukwukadibia Ude

    Greetings James,

    Thank you so much for this.

  • Thanks for this post James. I’ll Go Ahead and keep writing simple.

  • Chitra R

    Great read, thanks for sharing this!

  • Eric Hagemann

    This is actually valuable stuff. Thank you for passing this on!

  • AndreaHosar

    Such methods are used in sales to affect the most, not the best. In my eyes, the approval or even the comprehension of the majority isn’t attractive; repeatedly we’ve seen the mindset of the majority this year, and to be honest, it leaves one wanting. The majority is the rabble. Popularity is rarely a sign of quality, but rather one borne of pandering and infantilizing the reader; coddling them. I will not change the way I speak/write to fit the lowest common denominator. If one is so unfamiliar with their own language that a 5th grade comprehension is what is expected, I choose rather to cater to that small demographic whose comprehension fits their age/intellect/education. To dumb down vocabulary is more insulting to the reader than anything, as it assumes too much.

    • Jon Johnson

      With a straight face, is this how you really speak on a daily basis?

      If Dave doesn’t clean the toilet the way you like it do you say “Such methods are reserved for the barbaric, and are beyond my comprehension…”

      “If one is so unfamiliar with the workings of a toilet brush, I choose rather to associate with another whose comprehension of cleaning products fits their age..”

      Probably not. It usually sounds a bit more like “Really, Dave? learn how to use a toilet brush, you’re 35!”

      It doesn’t have to be about dumbing it down. A drastic change can be made by writing like you actually speak.

      • AndreaHosar

        But that’s entirely it – I DO speak that way as do my peers, in all the languages I know because these “bigger” words hold the same level of comfort of use as the smaller ones – the only difference is that these bigger words are more specific, concise, or nuanced. They are a part of the language afterall; they should be used when the circumstance demands it. It’s not a matter of associating or not associating with people who do as I do or not, rather a refusal to hyper- simplify things when it may not be appropriate – for fear that the listener won’t understand – they DO more often than not. As I said, when one is selling something, using the simplest language possible IS the best strategy – but in dialogue or discourse? It’s a death sentence for a language. Linguistic-drift is fine but Linguistic apathy or limitation is not. That would be something akin to “New Speak” and is the clarion call of anti-intillectualism.

        • Jon Johnson

          By all means, if that is your normal speaking tongue, carry on.

          The original comment made me think of my past habit to over-complicate the language of my writing to either impress readers or show my own intellectual superiority. Years of professional writing later- the K.I.S.S. model works best 95 percent of the time (again, for me).If it doesn’t ring true to you, then pass on over it. Again, this is from a writing standpoint.

          When having a chat with your peers, a refined vocabulary blends perfectly with a nice chardonnay to kiss the palate after every syllable. A writer/ reader relationship is typically more one sided, mirroring the public speaker/listener relationship is it not? After all, we don’t write a response novel for every book we’ve read.

          But that is the topic of writing. If I could shift to the topic of conversation for a second.

          Being the linguist that you are, you can help answer a question for me, as I struggle with it myself. Who carries the burden of effective communication – the speaker, or the listener?

          Correct me if I’m wrong, but it seems that what you are saying is they are both responsible to be at the same level of understanding. For instance between you and your peers, you share a similar level of understanding that makes clear communication effortless.

          In a situation where someone has a MUCH more limited understanding of a language, say a middle-school dropout (hyperbole, of course), do you communicate with them in the same way? And if they don’t understand, what is your next step to communicate with them? If you were to continue on speaking to them as you would an intellectual equal, how long until you lose their interest? And is *(EDIT) changing your vocabulary* coddling or enabling further discourse?

          • My hang-ups about this are undoubtedly rooted in how parents/grandparents spoke to me as a child; they didn’t coddle me – if I didn’t understand a turn of phrase or word, I would have to ask – then I would learn it, and life would move on. There was certainly no “Motherese” allowed in the house, though I know the lack of it is uncommon. That being said, I’m certain my parents “K.I.S.S’ed” it very early on, but once school began, I was spoken to as an adult. When I would visit my friends house as a child I would always ask the kid why the parents talked to them as though they were simple – they didn’t know, but interestingly enough, the kids were often much more articulate/adult with me than they were to their parents, often only projecting what was *expected* of them, rather than what they were capable of. I try to remember that when I speak to children. The unfortunate side-effect of that is that they often end up really liking me. Terrifying.

            In regards to your question concerning whose responsibility it is to ensure a similar level of understanding, I would have to insist it is the listener.

            For example, while I was learning Norwegian and was being spoken to normally (at a store/library/cultural worker) and it happened that I didn’t understand a word – I knew it was up to me to learn it, not for them to simplify it. The word exists in their language, my ignorance of it is the problem, not their using it.

            As a foreigner, the fact that I know less of the language is a given, however if the people around me, the books I read and the TV I watched was consistently kept at the lowest level – my overall Norwegian wouldn’t be as good as it is today. It was my responsibility to keep up.

            The same can be said of other languages, particularly French, which has so many nuances. So in response to your query, I feel it is the “right” of the speaker to uphold the standards of the language and “responsibility” of the listener to learn and be up to date with what the language can offer.

            Again, this is clearly a deep rooted issue (for me) and certainly the K.I.S.S formula is something to keep in mind in public speaking (sale of the self or idea in a way), marketing, sales ect. Also, I’m not a writer in anyway, just a frustrated reader/speaker/listener sometimes.

            You know, my reaction might be due to all the shitty contemporary-lit books I’ve been reading – I really don’t know, I think they’ve gone and made me linguistically bitter. I have linguistic ennui or whatever. (Also, I was in England for a bit and on the whole, the British use a far broader and more colourful array of words than where I am from which, for me at least, is like experiencing tonal fireworks. It was amazing to hear.)

          • Jon Johnson

            I definitely agree on many counts. Even the British slang is colorful and poetic in it’s own right.

            I understand the sentiment about “Motherese”. The way people talk to young children, elderly people, and puppies in the exact same way makes my spine twitch.

            What I struggle with linguistically is the need to communicate with people in a way that can bring the both of us to new levels of understanding on a topic, regardless of differences in education.

            A mechanic can have all the skills in the world as a mechanic, but the minute they say “carburetor”, they are speaking an ancient tongue to me. My ignorance on the topic needs a simplified tongue, which is why I praise a mechanic who has a good analogy in their pocket.

            The only difference here between the Norwegian example is that we are technically speaking the same language, though for all my experience, we might as well be on different planets. If the burden is on my end, I will walk away with a broken car until I educate myself on the basics of the combustion engine.

            This is all well and good, but it is in both of our best interests if the mechanic “dumbs it down” for me. Doing so allows me to reach the level of understanding required to engage with them, and will likely help them take my money.

            But as you’ve noted, that’s in sales. My background here is in content marketing and sales copy, so I am undoubtedly skewed towards seeing the responsibility of communication on the speaker. Taking broad strokes with a pen will appeal to all levels of readers, as both children and doctors of modern language can understand a simple tongue. But when in doubt, I find it best to ask someone who thinks the opposite is true and ask why.

  • Rama Prasad

    Wow this is really a great information

  • Camilo

    Where are the share buttons?

  • James, your reasoning is correct. The fewer words you need to convey meaning the better.

    Verbs over nouns, always.

    Use paragraphs.

    Also, many writers believe they have to mention every detail on their subject. In reality, readers fill in the gaps with their own thoughts.

    This makes them invest in the text they are reading – enjoying it more, remembering it longer.

  • Lisa Riblet Jacobi

    Best guidance, ever, scrawled by my Network Television News Editor across my first attempts at :28 second scripts:

    “Write Like You Speak!”

    #SimpleStuff #NeverForgotten #KeepItComingJames

  • Loon

    I’ve been doing everything wrong my entire life. Literally everything.

  • Julia

    Big ideas served in simplicity. Boom !

  • For those that don’t want to buy into this idea, I point you to the Nov. elections. Regardless of who you support, you’ll have to admit Trump won with speeches that were about 3rd grade level. Almost all of his sentences were short, simple and to the point. eg Crooked Hilary, Make America Great Again, lock her up, Repeal and Replace etc.No big fancy words – hell, he even used ‘Bigly’
    Think about it, how else could a New York billionaire relate to coal miners, bigots, racists, the elderly, the poor, the unemployed etc. etc.