There’s a lot of discussion in various writerly circles about the potential merits and downsides of “writing to grade level.”
Summarized succinctly, one side argues in favor of writing as much as possible at a ninth-grade reading level or below. The logic for this is that vast swaths of adults are not strong readers. By writing at the ninth-grade level, we can keep information, educational materials, entertainment pieces, and everything else accessible to mostly everyone.
The opposite side of this argument (which is where I tend to fall), is that no one will ever get better at reading or improve their vocabulary if we don’t expose them to anything outside their comfort zone. Nearly all the smart, actively-learning people I know encounter new words and ideas by reading above their grade level or outside their usual wheelhouse, and their lives are better for it.
When this shows up in fiction writing circles, I hold my ground. The girls in my Fic Whining Circle and I regularly challenge each other to do better and delight in the new things we learn (words, facts, or stylistic skills) reading each other’s works. That’s my corner of fandom and, while I respect it isn’t for everyone, I won’t hear any nonsense about it being “wrong” not to write down to the lowest common denominator.
In the professional writing world, things are a little different. When you are getting paid to write to a specific audience, writing to grade level makes a little more sense. You may be working with a group of people who are awesome and talented at what they do, but not strong readers/writers. My new job requires that we write to a ninth-grade level and suggested using the Hemmingway app to check our work before submitting it. While I’d heard of the app, I’d never used it before.
My initial thought was that I give it five stars for ease of use upfront. It’s a copy-and-paste interface that uses colored highlighting to show you what it is assessing and where the results came from. My second thought was “where the kriff is the back-of-house information on how to apply this?!”
By which I mean “you’re telling me that these sentences qualify as ‘hard to read’ per the mysterious guidelines, but I can’t fix them unless I know what the specific guidelines are! Do you hate commas? Is it sentence length that’s the problem? Help me out here!”
Half an hour of trial and error later, I largely figured it out. Sentences longer than 13 words automatically rank as “hard to read.” Get in the 20-word range and you’re up to “very hard,” even if they are all small words. The app hates the word “require” and most transitional words (however, although, etc.). Once I’d worked out what the detailed requirements were, writing the next article to grade level was dramatically faster and easier.
While I will not be using it for my personal writing, it’s a great tool to use professionally and I give the developers a lot of credit. Although I would still like to live in a world in which we encourage people to learn up rather than writing down, for now, I am content to challenge myself to write smart, educational articles that are still accessible. Doing so will improve my ability to break down complex topics and write to specific audiences, both of which are key writing skills and a worthy endeavor.