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Why You Should Write Like a Fifth Grader


As a rule, writers generally have excellent vocabularies. Their lives are built on words and word usage, and the natural tendency is to show off their skills.

Unfortunately, however, the average reader isn’t quite so articulate. Most people don’t read the dictionary for fun or cure boredom by researching the etymology of the English language. Therefore, if you utilize your extended vocabulary when working, you have one audience: other writers.

For blogs like this one, that might be okay, but most writers want to attract a broader audience base. And if you are such a writer, you need to learn how to write like a fifth grader.

An excellent example of this is the daily newspaper. Go ahead, pick one up. The newspaper is written on a fifth- or sixth-grade reading level so the general public can understand it. If journalists extended their vocabulary, readership would drop considerably.

You’ll find the same phenomenon in ad copy. Advertisers want to sell their products to as many people as possible; therefore, they must tone their vocabulary down so the masses get the message.

People Are Stupid

I know, I know, not exactly a politically correct statement, but there you have it. Most people just aren’t very bright, and if you insist on using language they don’t understand, two things will happen.

First, your readers won’t understand what you’ve written, and might even infer the opposite of what you meant. This can be disastrous, especially if you are writing a how-to article about nuclear weapons or installing a car seat. Second, you will irritate your reader, which is even worse. If you’ve angered your audience from the get-go, you won’t have an audience for long.

Dumbing It Down

I don’t worry about this rule with fiction as much as I do with non-fiction. I figure if someone doesn’t understand a word in a story, they can figure out the gist from context clues. However, for non-fiction writers, it is imperative that you dumb it down a notch or two.

Don’t worry about it as you are writing, but when you go back to edit, replace “flowery” or ambiguous words with clearer ones. Not only will this help you write like a fifth grader, but it will also tighten your writing with word economy.

My advice is to find every word in your piece that is more than three syllables, then see if you can find a less complex alternative. It isn’t always possible, but give it a try anyway.

See Jane Run

Remember the SEE JANE RUN stories you used to read during phonics class? They were overly simplistic, but you can actually learn something from that style of writing. If you are as clear and concise as possible, your words will always be understood.

Boil your sentences down to the most concise phrasing, and you’ll be well on your way to writing like a fifth grader. If Jane doesn’t have to stampede, canter, scamper, whisk, abscond, hasten, decamp or skedaddle, can’t she just run?

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