I've noticed some fiction authors (James Patterson, for instance) over time "dumbed down" their writing to include less obscure words and less poetic descriptions.

It's my understanding that this approach to writing is actually making literature "more accessible", as larger groups of people will be able to understand it.

Is there a reference that authors use for this? For instance, do they make sure their works can be read at a high school level? (A rule of thumb somebody gave me was "no words with over 4 syllables")

  • A rule of thumb I was given at a newspaper was "fifth grade reading level" and "short paragraphs," but that was house style. Commented Apr 24, 2013 at 19:54
  • Do you mean that was the in house style at that newspaper?
    – pblock
    Commented Apr 24, 2013 at 19:55
  • Yes, that was the in-house style which that paper used. It wasn't from a public reference book. And since that was, good gravy, well over 20 years ago, I don't even know if that's the style they're currently using. Commented Apr 24, 2013 at 19:56
  • 3
    When writing textbooks for junior high school, I used variants of Flesch Reading Ease, and the Flesch–Kincaid Grade Level to assess reading difficulty. Since the basic methodology balances word length and sentence length, my rule of thumb was that a new (necessary) polysyllabic term should be introduced in several short sentences to enable the reader to build familiarity.
    – Fortiter
    Commented Apr 25, 2013 at 1:06

2 Answers 2


Dumb down is a phrase that conveys contempt for your audience: you're using small words and simple phrases because you believe that your audience isn't as smart as you are. That may be true, but you should ask yourself this: If the ideas in your complex sentences and unfamiliar words can be conveyed as well by simpler text, how good a writer are you?

Rather than dumbing down, look for ways to clear up your writing. The ideals of plain style are as good a guide as any to writing clearly without assuming the worst about your readers. Remember that simplifying the language that you use doesn't mean that you have to simplify your topic. Without obscure language getting in the way, readers will be better able to understand what you write about complex subjects.


One popular tool is the Flesch-Kincaid Readability Score. See, for example, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Flesch%E2%80%93Kincaid_readability_test. Basically this counts the average number of letters per word and the average number of words per sentence and runs these through a formula to come up with an "appropriate grade level" for the block of text.

Personally I think such scores are interesting but I wouldn't take them too seriously. Yes, long sentences tend to be more complex and long words tend to be less familiar. But the key word here is "tend". The whole point of the FK score is that a writer can deliberately try to reduce the grade level of his writing by replacing long words with short words and breaking up sentences. But it's not at all clear that that really helps.

Consider this sentence, which I just grabbed off the Internet by searching for a fairly obscure scientific concept:

In cosmology, a Hubble volume, or Hubble sphere, is a spherical region of the Universe surrounding an observer beyond which objects recede from that observer at a rate greater than the speed of light due to the expansion of the Universe.

Flesh-Kincaid Score: 22

Okay, so now let me reword the paragraph to reduce my score.

In cosmology, there's a thing called a Hubble volume. It's also called a Hubble sphere. It's a sphere-shaped area around someone looking at space. In that area things recede from the person looking at a rate more than the speed of light. This is due to the expansion of the universe.

Flesh-Kincaid Score: 11

I cut my score in half. Is the paragraph now really more understandable? Did I really do anything to explain the concepts more simply? I don't think so. I just manipulated the scoring system.

My point is: I wouldn't rely too heavily on simplistic scoring systems or guidelines. Rather, you have to apply intelligence.

Using shorter words is a good idea in general. But there are lots of short words that are unfamiliar to most people, and plenty of long words that are well-understood. If you know something about chemistry, try explaining "mole" to a third-grader. I think he'd understand a long word like "wonderful" much more easily. I'm sure most people know what the word "object" means and know what the word "oriented" means, but that doesn't mean they'll easily understand the computer concept of "object-oriented" programming. Etc.

Many suggestions on how to make writing more accessible are rushing through my head, but you didn't ask for a list of ideas, you asked for a reference, so I'll quit here.

And this all reminds me, I heard some guy on the radio once saying that he got new word processing software that had a feature to calculate a reading level for your text, I'm guessing a Flesch-Kincaid or something similar. And, he said, "I have two Masters degrees, but no matter what I do I can't get a score above 9!"

  • Not only did you manipulate the scoring system; it seems to me that you manipulated the concept of a Hubble volume! The first definition says that a Hubble volume is the area (actually, volume or region, but I digress) outside of which objects recede from the observer at a speed greater than the speed of light; the second says that a Hubble volume is the area (again...) within which objects recede at a speed greater than that of light.
    – user
    Commented Mar 23, 2019 at 20:38
  • @aCVn Oops, good point, yeah, I screwed that up. But it must be more clear because I have a lower FK score!
    – Jay
    Commented Mar 24, 2019 at 20:00

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