In order to sell books or magazine articles with regularity, writers should write simply. In using Microsoft Word, one feature the software has is a spelling and grammar check, which reports the reading level of a document. I have often told my students their work should not exceed the eighth grade reading level.
This usually elicits questioning looks from the class. Many of my students are juniors and seniors in college and believe they should write on a “higher level.” It is then I explain that in order to get a message across to the reader, the use of the simplest writing style easily allows the reader to understand the writing.
As an example, I use Ernest Hemingway. I ask my class if they regard Hemingway as a successful writer. Many say yes, some say no. I then rephrase the question, “Was Hemingway a bestselling author?”
To this, the answer is typically a resounding yes. To which I then ask, “Why?”
“He sold a lot of books.”
“Why? And how?”
Finally, I boil it down to the idea the public wanted to read Hemingway’s work because he told great stories and his writing style was simple. All of which allows the readers to understand what he is saying in very short order.
Another famous writer, William Faulkner, purportedly insulted Hemingway one day when he said, “He has never been known to use a word that might send a reader to the dictionary.”
To this, Hemingway retorted, “Poor Faulkner. Does he really think big emotions come from big words?”
One thing I learned in the military was the KIS or KISS principle. (KIS for the politically correct, KISS for Keep It Simple, Stupid.) This is a tenet, which fits the writing world well, as well as any other. The easier it is to understand what you are trying to say or write, the more your listeners or readers will understand the message.
In my career interviewing class, the students start to see the importance of this when I say, “If you have written a cover letter and a résumé which is difficult to read, what do you think your intended audience will do?”
When the students realize the HR managers and chief pilots will put their letter and résumé aside to read another that is easier to read, they get it.
And the same holds true of any writing, books, magazine pieces, short stories, or non-fiction.
Write well, write simply, and keep it on the eighth grade or lower reading levels.
© 2011 J. Clark