On Writing Complexity

I’ve been on a bit of a writer’s break after finishing the CCST book, but it’s time to rekindle my “thousand words a day” habit. As always, one part of this is thinking about how I write—is there anything I need to change? Tools, perhaps, or style?

What about the grade level complexity of my writing? I’ve never really paid attention to this, but I’m working on contributing to a site regularly that does. So maybe I should.

I tend to write to the tenth or eleventh-grade level, even when writing “popular material,” like blog posts. The recommended level is around the eighth-grade level. Is this something I need to change?

It seems the average person considers anything above the eighth-grade reading level “too hard” to read, so they give up. Every reading level calculation I’ve looked at essentially uses word and sentence length as proxies for complexity. Long words and sentences intimidate people.

On the other hand, measuring the reading grade level can seem futile. There are plenty of complex concepts described by one- and two-syllable words. Short sentences can still have lots of meaning.

Further, the reading grade level does not tell you if the sentence makes sense. A famous politician recently said, “… it’s time for us to do what we have been doing, and that time is every day.” The reading grade level of this sentence is in the sixth grade—but saying nothing is still saying nothing, even if you say it at a sixth-grade level.

While reading level complexity might be important, it is more important to say something.

Sometimes, using long words and sentences stops people from paying attention to your words. However, replacing long words and sentences with shorter ones sometimes removes your words’ real meaning (or at least flavor). I am not, at this point, certain how to balance these. I suspect I will have to consider the tradeoff in every situation.

When you write—and if you are doing your job as a network engineer well, you do write—you might want to consider the complexity of your writing. I will use the grade level as “another tool” in my set, which means I’ll be thinking about writing complexity more—but I’m not going to allow it to drive my writing style. If I can reduce the complexity of my writing without losing meaning, I may … sometimes … or I might not. 😊

Looking at the other side of the coin—what about reading grade level from a reader’s point of view? Should we only read easy-to-read things? The answer should be obvious: no.

There is a bit of a feeling that text above a certain reading level is “sheer nonsense.” Again, though, the grade level has nothing to do with the value of the content. Sometimes, saying complex things just requires complex text. Readers (all of us) need to learn to read complex text.

Reading grade level is a good tool in many situations—but it is one tool among many.