A writer’s rant about reading difficulty

I find the framing on this newstory insultingly stupid, which is ironic because it’s about the alleged stupidity of Congress. The story is that the level of sophistication that our congresscritters speak at has dropped a full grade level since 2005, and freshmen Republicans have the lowest level. My reaction to this is Go freshmen Republicans!

The idiocy of this story is that the measure being used is one of reading difficulty. Being able to read things at a high difficulty level is a virtue because it means you’re able to read a wider range of material. But there’s no virtue in making your writing and speeches difficult to understand. In fact, if you think about it, being a great non-fiction writer requires reading at a high level and writing at a low one: you need to be able to draw on a wide range of other people’s works, including ones that are hard to understand, but then make the ideas and information you take from them as easy as possible to understand.

Now, not all ideas are equally easy to understand, and a low difficulty level may be the resut of a writer or speaker only expressing simple ideas. But for any given idea, there’s a huge range of ways to express it, and it takes work to find the way that’s easiest for your audience to understand. I suspect that’s where most of the variation in reading difficulty levels of texts comes from.

The problem is even worse in the HuffPo article, which innaccurately reports the finding as being that “Members of Congress Speak Like High School Sophomores.” Uh, no. The grade level measure isn’t a measure of what sophomores sound like, it’s a measure of the maximum they’re capable of reading. Most people are nowhere near being professional writers, and they’re not going to be able to produce writing as sophisticated as the most sophisticated writing they can read.

As the original report (but none of the reportage on it I’ve seen) notes, Obama’s State of the Union addresses have averaged grade eight reading difficulty, even lower than Congress. I don’t care much for Obama, but it should be obvious that this is to his credit. Does anyone seriously doubt that Obama is a better speaker than most congresscritters? The fact that his speeches are written in relatively simple language should tell you something.

I should also point out that the fact that a speech by Obama is written at the 8th grade level doesn’t mean it’s written for 8th graders and high school dropouts. Writing and speaking at the limit of your audience’s ability to comprehend is a bad idea, because odds are while they may feel like they understand you, they won’t, really. To use an example I’ve recently had occasion to complain about, many people can nod along when they hear their opponents denounced as shrill, strident, and vehement, but how many could define those words without looking in a dictionary?

/writer’s rant

Okay, now now a point of curiosity: anyone know where I could find reading difficulty levels for the world’s best non-fiction books? Selfish Gene, How the Mind Works, etc? I’m guessing around 10th grade, maybe even 9th, for Selfish Gene. It has some hard ideas, but is extremely easy to read, that’s one of it’s virtues.

  • AndrewD

    Chris,
    Language log looked at this earlier this week here:- http://languagelog.ldc.upenn.edu/nll/?p=3970

  • http://haphazardhermit.blogspot.com/ michaeld

    I can’t tell you off the top of my head how diffucult they are but you can check the reading difficulty of anything you put into microsoft word so if you had a digital copy it shouldn’t be too hard to figure it out.

    http://office.microsoft.com/en-us/word-help/test-your-document-s-readability-HP010148506.aspx

    Here’s a link explaining how to turn it on if anyone wants to try.

  • josh

    I not infrequently take umbrage at the level of discourse emanating from the political classes, and at the implied vituperation upon my perspicacity therefrom, (albeit the Democrats inveigling I find less egregiously rebarbative, notwithstanding which even Obama’s much-ballyhooed oratory strikes me as degenerate and quotidian when juxtaposed with that of his antecedants), yet the pith of my disapprobation resides not in the absence of truly recondite verbiage or a dearth of sufficiently bombastiloquent expectorations.

    • http://www.hyperdeath.co.uk hyperdeath

      Have you considered going into literary theory? That is probably worth a paper by itself.

      • josh

        I’m actually a physicist, although I’ve had people tell me to break up sentences in papers with too many clauses. :) Needless to say, I’m not usually that over the top.

        Have you read Ulysses? I’m not the huge fan that some people are, but there is a section where Joyce just starts constructing these paragraph-long, maze-like sentences one after the other (from a surreal, abstract perspective too). It’s entertaining in a way but a hell of a slog.

  • Mattir

    When thinking about reading difficulty, it’s worth being aware that The Economist is written at a sixth grade level and is among the best news publications around. This is one of the problems with the odious reading-for-points system that so many schools force kids to do – Tom Clancy, being a horrid, verbose writer earns a kid more points than, say, Ernest Hemingway. Sure, some topics require specialized vocabulary, but I can’t imagine which topics require convoluted sentence structure, overuse of the passive voice, and other marks of Bad Writing™.

    The other thing to keep in mind is that many people with reading disabilities do fine with audio. Dawkins’ recordings of his books are fantastic – my sixteen year old dyslexic kid has listened to several and loved them. Ditto Hitchens, Coyne, and a variety of other science and atheism writers.

  • tubi

    anyone know where I could find reading difficulty levels for the world’s best non-fiction books? Selfish Gene, How the Mind Works, etc?

    You can check the Lexile level of a book here. You can search by title or author, although I didn’t find either of the titles you mention. River out of Eden is a 1220L, meaning it’s at about the 11th or 12th grade level.


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