I did an experiment. I can’t wait to tell you about it.
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 most popular 30 articles on LinkedIn yesterday, ranked by page views.
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 was calculated to determine at what grade level you are writing for. If your score is 10, you are writing for a 10th grade level.
If your score is 12 you are writing at a 12th grade level. And so on.
The F-K score is a function of how may words per sentence (lower is better). How many 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 this.
But does this 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 yesterday was by Gretchen Rubin. She is a New York Times bestseller.
She wrote “The Happiness Project”, one of my favorite books, which has sold over a million copies. Has given TED talks. And has also 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, of the 30 articles: all written by bestselling authors, CEOs, entrepreneurs, great communicators, were writing at an average of an 8th grade level.
_ _ _
The college students average was at a 12th grade level. The lowest score was at a 9th grade level. The highest score was a 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 BS. Maybe all these LinkedIn writers get there by writing for the lowest common denominator. Maybe it’s not good writing. Just sales writing.
I don’t know. Of the 30 there were many bestselling 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. Hemingway wrote at a 4th grade level. The year after that book he won the Nobel Prize.
“Heart of Darkness”, considered one of the best books ever, by Joseph Conrad, was written at a 6th grade level.
“Crime and Punishment” – by Dostoevsky – written at a 7th grade level.
The score for this post: 4.6
The skill to be an effective writer is more important than ever: texts, emails, articles, tweets, books, updates, ads, etc. Writing is how we share and communicate our lives.
If you have a vision and want your ideas to be heard, as they should be, 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?
In one of the Cornell articles (with a 13.4 F-K score), here’s a sample sentence:
“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.
Gretchen Rubin, in her article, points out that we often fail to give up habits we know in the long term are bad. Like sugar. Or too much alcohol. Or working late hours to get ahead.
She says, “We should make sure the things we do to feel better don’t make us feel worse.”
Sounds like good advice.