How to edit, part 3

Reading time: 2.5 minutes

Have you been wrestling with the idea of readability statistics? Do you see them as unfair? Unliterary? Even illiterate? Here is part 3 of my series on how to become your own best editor.

Just about every time I write about readability statistics I hear back from people who are concerned. These tricky little numbers — the ones that assign a grade level to something you’ve written — sometimes get reasonable people upset. It certainly doesn’t help that I urge writers to produce material regarded as suitable for grade 9 or lower. (This means readers would need at least a grade 9 level of education in order to read your work easily.)

Wouldn’t grade 12 be a better, more respectable level to aim for? In fact, I once had a doctor tell me he thought he should be writing for at least a college level. This “how to edit” series (see parts 1 and  2 here) drew the following response from a bright and polite subscriber:

“People who won’t challenge themselves to read anything more difficult than a 6th grade level are missing so much, especially much of the world’s great literature (and probably much content of the New York Times),” she wrote. “Should we be at all concerned that we are enabling creeping illiteracy by pandering to it?”

I’ve encountered this concern many times before, and let me begin by saying I don’t encourage anyone to write in a simplistic fashion. That would be dull and boring — the last thing I want to endorse.

But in order to convince you that readability is not something to be scoffed at, let me give you an excerpt from one of my alltime favourite writing books, On Writing Well, by William Zinsser.

Please read the following five-paragraph passage and guess the grade level at which it falls. 

So much for early warnings about the bloated monsters that lie in ambush for the writer trying to put together a clean English sentence.

“But,” you may say, “if I eliminate everything you think is clutter and strip every sentence to its barest bones, will there be anything left of me?” The question is a fair one and the fear entirely natural. Simplicity carried to its extreme might seem to point to a style where the sentences are little more sophisticated than “Dick likes Jane” and “See Spot run.”

I’ll answer the question first on the level of mere carpentry. Then I’ll get to the larger issue of who the writer is and how to preserve his or her identity.

Few people realize how badly they write. Nobody has shown them how much excess or murkiness has crept into their style and how it obstructs what they are trying to say. If you give me an article that runs to eight pages and I tell you to cut it to four, you’ll howl and say it can’t be done. Then you’ll go home and do it, and it will be infinitely better. After that comes the hard part: cutting it to three.

The point is that you have to strip your writing down before you can build it back up. You must know what the essential tools are and what job they were designed to do. If I may labor the metaphor of carpentry, it is first necessary to be able to saw wood neatly and to drive nails. Later you can bevel the edges or add elegant finials, if that’s your taste. But you can never forget that you are practicing a craft that is based on certain principles. If the nails are weak, your house will collapse. If your verbs are weak and your syntax is rickety, your sentence will fall apart.

OK — that’s it for William Zinsser. So, what’s the grade level of his passage? Make a guess, write it down, and then next week I’ll tell you. (I’ve decided to add a part 4 to this series) I think you may be surprised.

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