Writing at the sixth-grade level

williamfaulkner

Most journalists follow one rule of thumb: They write for a sixth to eighth grade reading level. One of the first and most basic skills a journalist learns is to cut out difficult words and complex sentence structure. We even shun the use of potentially complicated punctuation. Our colleagues and editors push us to “make it tight.” As a former English major, I marveled at this rule.

How was I supposed to make my writing interesting? Who wants to read a bunch of short sentences pounded out like a machine gun? I also became deeply concerned with the concept of propagating “dumbed down” writing. I felt that journalists should have more faith in their readers.

As I  swam deeper and deeper into the world of journalism, however, I gradually realized the beauty of tight writing. Concise writing has a number of benefits. By cutting out unnecessary fluff, I can post a story with immediacy. The straightforward nature of tight writing also eliminates potential confusion. I just write the facts as they are.

This writing style also keeps me from unconsciously inserting too much of myself into a story. I can write what happened, and not use a plethora of overly descriptive adjectives that emphasize the story the way see it.

Furthermore, there is still room for creativity in tight writing. In feature writing, I can describe the colors, sights and smells of my surroundings. I can write a suspenseful lede and still be true to the facts.

Ultimately, my job is to inform readers, and concise writing allows me to do this with immediacy and accuracy. As William Faulkner said, “In writing, you must kill all your darlings.”

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5 thoughts on “Writing at the sixth-grade level

  1. Immediacy and accuracy, I love your faith in Journalism. It seems hard to have equal parts of both. Unless you are Fox News, which neither are needed.

    • Burn! Fox News does not carry a reputation for accuracy, unfortunately. That is why I try to diversify the types of newspapers I read. You are right – at times, it seems nearly impossible to have both. And that is exactly why CNN has had so many reporting errors. I imagine that only practice and a deep knowledge of your publication’s coverage area, could help change that. You may have just inspired my next blog post topic, so keep in touch. 🙂

  2. Simple writing has two incredible faces: (1) the base, straightforward method encapsulated by pithy clauses and (2) the heavy iceberg of absence coined by Hemingway. I think you balance on that wonderful wire between worlds where a busy reader can enjoy skimming the surface, but a thoughtful reader can recognize the 90% below the waterline.

    • What a beautiful comparison. Hemingway presents seemingly simplistic writing that offers so much more upon reflection. Hopefully, journalists can inform readers, while also providing the artistic language of Hemingway.

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