105182105411111CDPBy Neva Bodin

Recently an article appeared in our local paper regarding a dog shooting his owner. It seems the dog was standing in the front seat of a truck, and his master told him to get in the back. The dog complied, but shot the master in the arm. A rifle was on the backseat. It discharged. The article didn’t explain why, but it wouldn’t take much imagination to figure the dog stepped on it. I was chuckling, (I do feel sorry for the injured man of course). The county sheriff, in his wisdom, said the shooting appeared to be an accident. You think?

Immediately my mind began to look for motives from the dog. I could find some.

I went to the cupboard to grab the peanut butter to put on my toast. I wondered what all the ingredients were in the peanut butter as it boasted it was “natural.” After it listed quite a few ingredients that didn’t sound all that natural, a bigger statement warned, “Contains Peanuts.” You think? (I kind of like that new cliché.)

I began wondering if there was peanut butter for sale that didn’t contain peanuts. I’m going to have to be more observant about the products offered for sale.

This led to my thinking of the movie recently released: Dumb and Dumber 2, and to hearing the phrased “dumbing down America.” And to a statement I heard from a presenter at a writers’ conference that the average reading level for adults is fourth grade. With a little research online, I find it is grade 5.2, at least for seniors in high school. And while college may change that for some, there would be quite a few readers who will not progress above that.

According to

“• The average difficulty level of independently read books steadily increases through elementary school and peaks at 5.2 in grade 12 (see table A1 in the Appendix, p. 51).

  • The difficulty level of books read independently by high school students is roughly comparable to bestselling books that adults read; however, the average difficulty level of books students read is lower than many newspaper articles, and is considerably lower than what may be required for college and career.”

So perhaps attaching what I think of as obvious conclusions, aren’t so “dumb” after all, and I am “dumber” for not thinking of it! These facts also have obvious implications for us as writers.

I am working on a young adult novel that involves time travel. Should I include a lot of “likes” in my verbiage for today’s teen? Actually including “like” every few words, as I heard from a young female I had a conversation with recently, would make it verbiage, which can mean an excess of words. Like I don’t know what I’m doing, which is not, like, what I had in mind. But would be, like, at the level of the, like, reader perhaps.

Today I read of a man in trouble because he shot a cow with a stolen gun. While the meaning of course is clear, with common sense, I can still chuckle as I wonder why the cow had a stolen gun.

I also own the book, Eats Shoots & Leaves, by Lynn Truss—a book about punctuation and how the above sentence changes in meaning by inserting commas. I love that title.

All this rambling, and how I entertain myself with the newspaper, is really about wondering how you, as a writer, work to make your articles/books at the level of the average reader. Do you worry about that? Do it naturally? Consciously write to a fifth grade level? What’s your secret? I’d like to know.



  1. Rightly or wrongly, I don’t worry about it too much. Perhaps I should–especially since my books are targeted for an older YA or college-age audience. I change some words sometimes because they sound too old or are words that the age group is unlikely to know. And I try to use realistic phrasing in the dialogue–without becoming too slangy. But, honestly, I think reading is one of the ways we learn new vocabulary. You don’t want to have to look up a lot, but having to look up a word or two shouldn’t be a problem. And if the word is a new one, you can frequently guess its meaning by its context. I just write as clearly as possible to convey what I want to convey. Fun post.


    1. Thanks Stephanie. I write that way too and I agree, learning new words, if not too many, should be okay. But I try to keep in mind that statement about fourth grade I heard. Neva


  2. I don’t know where you got the pics but they are adorable! Really enjoyed this article, Neva. I had the problem with verbiage in the first Inzared novel. I was trying hard to be true to the era, yet write a book that was appealing to today’s readers. My first editor suggested I change all the conversational parts of the book to that of the year (1849). In this case it was very different, as my protagonist is from the backwoods of North Carolina and has learned everything she knows there. I ended up with a book with lines like “Them skeeters is mighty bad tonight, ain’t they?” When I read the book for the umpteenth time with the changes, I hated it. It was hard to read, got very tiresome wading through verbiage the reader might have trouble understanding, and the book had a very different feel. Needless to say, I changed the book again and hired another editor. I didn’t completely eliminate the dialect, as my protagonist has talked this way all her life, but the book is mostly written in today’s language. I think you already know what you want to say in a book, but I don’t think it has to be written in the cliches and “new” words of today. A reader is a reader is a reader. I’ve devoured books all my life and those that are written clearly, in language that appeals to my reading choices, are the best. Thanks for a great post!


    1. Thanks Linda. Interesting to hear how you handled that! Sometimes the best advice is your own. I like that you found a different editor who apparently worked with your style better. I’ve also been told if we really believe in something we’ve written or how we’ve written it, to stick to our guns. Neva


  3. My non-fiction is usually for adult readers, but still I try to allow for all reading levels. It is important to me that history be exciting and want to instill a love and desire to know more. My fiction is romance, usually, so I just tell the story.

    What an enjoyable post, and makes one think. That is what I really like. Doris


    1. Thanks Doris. I do have a book on creative non-fiction, and how it can be just as colorful and interesting as fiction. I think you achieve that in your writing. It is a skill to write for all reading levels though. Good for you. Neva


  4. Great post, Neva! Since I write for a variety of audiences, from little kids to adults, I research the type of readers I write for, including buying picture books so I have a better understanding how other authors write for various ages. Although I don’t think about it during the first draft, when I edit and review, I make changes as needed. Thanks for the reminder, Neva, as I look to complete another children’s book as well as finish another devotion.


    1. You busy lady! Good reminder to buy books written for the age group I’m writing for. I have a penchant for skipping over good steps like that! And as I read to my goddaughter’s kids last week, (age 7 and 3) I was appalled at a couple books which were full of nonsensical words and disjointed stories that must appeal since the 7 year old brought one to me, or perhaps it was just because his mother had bought it for him and he wanted me to read SOMETHING to him. It reminded me of some of the adult sit-coms on TV. Neva


  5. Make ’em suffer. They need to carry a dictionary with them. Seriously, when I was a technical writer I did much thinking on how to write manuals on papermaking machines that the operators could understand. There are aspects of papermaking that are quite technical — requiring knowledge of chemistry — “and it ain’t easy dumbing down.”


    1. You gave me a chuckle. makes me think of all the books coming out “for dummies.” And I don’t think we are offended by that phrase anymore! Is that good or bad? Thanks for the comments. Neva


  6. Good post and unfortunately too true. Years ago I thought the average reading level was seventh grade. Looks like we’ve lost some ground. Encountered that recently with doing a critique. The writer misused any number of words and had serious mistakes in grammar–with a piece that supposedly had done well in a contest. The same person was unfamiliar with what I consider common words. Got me wondering if I need to dumb down my writing. It’s kind of strange that we’ve got untold numbers of PhDs and yet have a poor reading level.


    1. That is strange. I wonder, with all the spell checks, automatic corrections by our word processors, and lack of patience to get to the point, if it will get better. We actually have a letter writing group in our town, while I’m not sure if they critique each other’s work, they get together to share letters written to people to keep good old-fashioned (now) communication alive. I think I need a group to learn to write in today’s short hand for texting! Thanks for the comments. Neva


    2. I replied to you and Mike’s next comment below, but I wonder too how someone could win a contest with that type of misuse. That would be a deliberate “dumbing down” of our writer/reader? Makes one wonder. Neva


  7. Interesting, I did give it a lot of thought when I first started writing and in the ministry we were taught that most people read and comprehend best at a 6th grade level. That’s most people, there are people on both sides of the fence. Gibs would respond, “You think?” (LOL). I try to add a sprinkle of more intense words, that like Stephanie said, can probably be figured out in the context. I like to use a little slang, and I know (Heaven Forbid), a few cliches. I usually have a minor character portray these words and ways, that way I don’t have to repeat them through the whole book, over and over. My books are for entertainment, not education. I do like to teach or enlighten the readers in some way, give a little take away. I don’t know if I’m successful in all of this, but these are my thoughts on the matter.–I’m glad my animals are a little more docile than the dog and the cow in your blog. LOL Thanks for the deep thoughts. Cher’ley


    1. Thanks Cherley. I like what you said about a little slang or a cliche at times. I agree with someone who said recently in our paper that cliche’s are formed because they came from some truth at some time, and sometimes they fit. I try to make my stories entertaining but also have a take-away, even the short story murder I wrote that was published by our college and which my friends had no comment for, since they didn’t think it was in character for me. In it, I hoped to give people insight into why someone might kill children, not to condone it, but perhaps find a killer by understanding motive as a profiler might do. Interesting to hear how you do it too. Neva


  8. I agree with Mike and others above. I can’t help my training on this topic, Neva. When I taught 11-12 year olds in my classes, my expectation during reading lessons was that they should be challenged and learn some new vocabulary each session. Since they read in ability groups of around 5 or 6 kids, their start level for the day varied according to their already achieved vocabulary- the novels read were pre-chosen with this tactic in mind. I felt I had failed them if they didn’t encounter something new that needed a ‘proper’ explanation. I also had dictionaries at hand that were constantly in use, the kids having been taught the strategies needed for using them. Kids and adults are lazy- they’ll avoid challenges but it’s not always the best for them in the long run. As an author, I use the words that pop into my head, generally because I feel they are the best ones to describe the situation. I’m not in favour of having to adapt too many of these because I don’t feel they are too obscure. Though, when my first novel was published, I was accused of using too many ‘5 dollar’ words in my mystery romance. I confess that I didn’t know what that meant and had to ask.


  9. I find that if I try to write to what I think are other people’s expectations it does not go well. Instead, I tell my stories the best way I can and trust they’ll find an audience.
    Great post and lots to think about.


  10. Personally I don’t consider the reading level of my work when I write unless I am working on a picture book. However it does come into play. Before publishing I hadn’t considered that my work would be read to, or by children, but it has been. I think when we write for ourselves the audience will find us.


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