This might seem like an obvious question, but I'm curious if there's been any research into whether popularity correlates with linguistic simplicity.

Furthermore, do popular novels use linguistic complexity below that of the average reader; instead of matching or exceeding what the average reader is capable of?

George Orwell's advice on writing emphasised the need for plain English. He argued complexity of language, especially with mixed metaphors, was needless and confusing. I assume the use of simpler and conventional written English helps to make books popular by making them more accessible. For example: I don't think it's a coincidence that Harry Potter and the Hobbit are both so wildly successful; when they were both written for children.


Apparently not, according to this study (https://contently.com/strategist/2015/01/28/this-surprising-reading-level-analysis-will-change-the-way-you-write/) which found popular authors spred all acorss the reading ease scale from Ernest Hemmingway at a grade 5 level to Michael Cricton at a grade 9 level.

This does not surprise me. It is generally more educated people who read novels anyway, so simplicity of language should not be an overwhelming issue for them. Compelling story seems much more likely to be the determining factor for the average novel reader.

Orwell's advice, we should remember, was aimed principally at writer of non-fiction. Not to say it does not apply to novelists as well, but it is well to remember that the writing of a lot of nonfiction should be accessible to the average citizen, whereas the average novel reader is likely better schooled and will certainly read at a higher grade level, if only because they get more practice.

Curiously, the writer of the study cited above had just the opposite concern, that people would turn their noses up at books that used simple language. So his message is that it is okay to use simple language. But his results equally show that it is okay to use more complex language as well.

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    The article is interesting, though it does say: "But data shows the opposite: lower reading level often correlates with commercial popularity and in many cases, how good we think a writer is". I'm curious where you got the idea that Orwell was writing specifically for civil servants? He had written politics and fiction, and in his literary critiques he seemed more likely to use political writing and its metaphors (the Nazi octopus has sung its last swansong) and difficult terminology (the proletariat must unite against the bourgeoisies) to contextualise points on writing style. Aug 9 '17 at 13:52
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    You're right, it was not Orwell, or at least, not on Poitics and the English Language. I conflated him other other writers of the period who were more specifically critical of civil service writing. The article says 'lower reading level often correlates with commercial popularity and in many cases' because the premise he was testing was that a low reading level would turn people off. But his data refutes the opposite premise just as much, by showing no strong correlation between popularity and reading level. In other words, there are popular works with both high and low reading levels.
    – user16226
    Aug 9 '17 at 15:33

Writing should also take into account it's audience. You aren't going to write a technical book about quantum mechanics designed for experts in the field and use high level terms and explanations. It would almost be insulting to the experts' intelligence who decide to pick up and read the book. On the same token, you don't want to fill a book with a ton of low level technical talk and jargon in a book designed for beginners who lack any in-depth understanding.

When it comes to novel writing, it isn't so cut and dry. On one hand, you have the author wanting to show off their ability to write, portray beautiful scenes, and sound like an expert writer by correctly using big terms and literary elements. The reader just wants to read a well written story. Whether it is simple language or not isn't so much of the issue. What matters in the end is how the words are used.

Take martial arts for example. When a fighter wants to show off their skills and be flashy, they will do all these flips and moves and twists and turns that look really really cool. When it boils down to a real fight though, 90% of that will be replaced with simple kicks and punches because it is what is practical. A simple punch is just as effective if not more effective than adding in the flare.

Another example we can use is music. Some times the most beautiful piano song we can hear sounds so elegant, so moving, so robust. When you go to look at the sheet music, you are almost half disappointed to find out that it is rather fairly simple to play and feel cheated that something so beautiful was so simple.

In sports, we often hear analysts judging struggling players. The most common advice heard is "they need to get back to the basics and fundamentals" or that they "need to remove the unnecessary movements and simplify it".

It all boils down to you. Are you able to write a masterfully simple piece? Or are you able to write an decent but complicated piece? Doing things simply but masterfully will always be better than struggling to do things complicated. In the end you need to find your comfort zone and balance in the spectrum of it.

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    This is exactly right. I was taught a lifetime ago that If you're writing to a general audience, the average reader is approximately an 8th grade level reader. I recall receiving demerits in High School because I had the annoying habit of showing off my vocabulary, which tended to make the report a collegiate reading level, which was against the instructor's wishes. Aug 10 '17 at 3:52
  • @JBH I declined your edit for the following... In technical terms a high level overview or high level explanations are the shallow surface of it. Think of it like an iceberg. The tip or high level is the shallow surface, but the lower you go the deeper it goes. See this for further explaination
    – ggiaquin16
    Aug 10 '17 at 15:29
  • @ggiquin, the reason I made the edit is because we're talking about average readers, who perceive "high language" to mean technical or above their level. Your assertion only makes sense in the business world where the idea of the "view from 10,000 feet" is an everyday concept. Please don't forget your assertion to remember your audience. Aug 10 '17 at 15:39
  • @JBH I do understand your point, but just because people don't know how to use terms properly doesn't mean I should use it improperly for the sake of the average reader. It would rather re-word it than use wrong terms. Also the examples provided should give the average reader through context an understanding of what a high and low level explanation is.
    – ggiaquin16
    Aug 10 '17 at 15:42
  • You've missed my point. Wikipedia is not a definitive taught in school. I'm an electrical engineer. If I wrote a paper detailing the USB bus protocol using language my peers understood and tried to explain that the language was "low" (in reference to maximum detail or technicality) while the topic was treated "low" (in reference to the detailed nature of the paper) I'd be laughed at for the first and understood for the second. You're not promoting the "correct" way of doing it, just one way of doing it - a way that people who judge writing in terms of increasing grade level won't understand. Aug 10 '17 at 15:50

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